The entire trip was almost sunk under the faucet of the Port Authority bathroom. Artem’s cell had been written across the flat of my hand. Traffic had crawled through the Holland Tunnel. I’d borrowed a pen from the Newark Check-In Agent and copied the number onto the corner of my boarding card. I’d used the same pen to push the payphone buttons at Paris Airport and then chewed the barrel flat as I’d waited for my connection. Four hours later and I was curbside at Boryspill in Kiev. Artem was my fixer. He said he’d be there, and he was.
‘You know how many wolves in Exclusion Zone?’ He asks, pulling open the driver’s side door of his emerald sedan and sliding into the driver’s seat. I know the answer but I don’t say anything. I could fall asleep standing in my tennis shoes. Curling my fingers under the handle, I hesitate but the metal under my fingers clicks open and the door pushes wide. I step back. Artem leans over the seat grinning.
‘More than in Yellowstone,’ he says.
‘That’s what I’d like to see.’
He folds back behind the steering wheel and turns the ignition. There’s a rumble and a pause. He tries again and then a second and a third time until eventually it catches. The car smells like damp canvas shoes and cooking oil. I crack the window.
‘You will see.’ he replies, gunning the engine and then pointing us north, towards Chernobyl.
The number 4 reactor at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station suffered a catastrophic explosion on the night of April 26th 1986. Two men died instantly. Thousands more died in the weeks, months and years that followed. Seventy tons of radioactive material was released into the air above Ukraine. Nuclear fire burned inside the reactor for ten days. To this day, Chernobyl remains one of the most contaminated places on Earth, but it was somewhere I had to see.
I wake up somewhere along the road to the north. Artem mouths along to the radio. Taylor Swift’s voice is fizzy with static. My mouth is hot and sour. The red-eye hangover. I should have booked a hotel in Paris. I feel rougher than the road we’re slowing over. It’s two hours from Kiev to Dytyatky. The village is unremarkable: muted squat buildings with sloping ochre roofs and chicken wire fences around the front yards. This is a frontier. The area in front of us is the Exclusion Zone: a 1600 square mile corral isolating the irradiated landscapes of northern Ukraine and southern Belarus from the rest of the world.
We stop at the checkpoint.
‘We’re here?’ I say, arching my back against the seat.
Artem drops a plastic bottle into my lap and offers an abridged version of the rules as I drink the water warm. No drugs, no drinking, no smoking or eating in the open, no souvenirs. Touching the vegetation is a no, too, and the buildings. Pushing his hands into the pocket of his door, he begins tossing sealed packs of protective clothing into my lap: a white oversuit, shoe protectors, plastic gloves, a face mask. I turn them over in my hands and catch his eye. The faculty don’t even know I’m here. This is an unfunded preliminary research trip to satisfy a curiosity I’ve nursed for years. This is a suck-it-and-see kind of trip. I don’t know that I want to get my hands dirty.
‘Is Chernobyl. Is not Yellowstone.’
I slip the packs onto the seat behind me. There might not be Old Faithful here but the tourists are the same. A Dutch group stands in a cluster around the metal signs warning of radiation.
‘Is like Vegas today’ Artem says, as another white bus pulls in behind us. The road we’re on runs straight under the barrier, continuing for a few hundred yards and then disappearing between the nine-storey pine trees lining both sides of the road. Artem waves at a guard in a blue uniform leaning against the checkpoint’s main building. The man nods, crushes his cigarette beneath his heel, slides his cell into his back pocket and walks towards us. Artem pulls three folds of paper from the pocket of his jeans, smoothing the corners with his hand.
‘Friend of yours?’ I ask, passing him my passport.
He slips the papers inside as the guard taps the glass. Artem gets out and the two walk together back to the building. There’s an exchange of words and hands. I unfasten my seatbelt but Artem takes a cigarette from his back pocket and holds up his hand. I want to get out of the car, but I don’t.
I was 6 years old in 1986 and on vacation with my parents in London when reactor-4 exploded at Chernobyl. It had been our first trip together outside the United States. I remember my mother’s excitement. Her enthusiasm mapped out in pencilled lists on the hotel’s stationary with everything she’d wanted to see: the museums, the palaces and the parks. We’d spent the three previous days walking the streets, riding on the top deck of the buses and filling our pockets and purses with pamphlets and leaflets and ticket stubs. But then the television spoke about a toxic cloud passing over Europe and there’d been a brief and fruitless conversation with the embassy, and my mother had laid towels across the windowsills and along the bottom of the door. Everything was done to the mantra just in case, just in case. I’d been upset. We were meant to go to the zoo. We ordered raspberry ripple ice cream from the hotel’s room service. It came in a beige basin, and I still can’t hear the word Chernobyl without thinking of the brain freeze that followed that dessert.
Artem drove us under the upright arm of the barrier and we cleared the checkpoint. He hands me a solid rectangular object.
‘Dosimeter,’ he says.
I turn it over in my hand. It was no larger than the portable doorbell in my apartment.
‘Biologist?’ He asks.
He raises an eyebrow.
‘You wear suit if suit is needed.’
‘Naturalist not naturist.’
‘Is okay. Is joke. I very funny man.’
‘Is beautiful, yes?’
I dip my head to take a better look. I’d seen the results of other studies. I’d read their observations, too, but I hadn’t expected the Exclusion Zone to be so verdant, so serene, beautiful — yes. As we drive past the woodlands and forests, the copses and meadows all appear thick and lush. The canopies open and proud. The sky freshly painted. Under the gentle ministering breeze, the tall grass at the roadside is fluttering its tips. I press my nose to the window.
‘lot of animals as well’
With each gear change, soda cans in the footwell roll against my foot. I relax. I let go of a breath that I feel I’ve been holding since I got here and slip the Geiger Counter under my knee.
‘What kind of animal?’
‘I see wolf, bison, moose, elk’
‘And bear, and eagle and horse.’
‘You’ve seen these animals personally? With your own eyes?’
He looks amused, but I want him to be sure.
‘Sami?’ I ask,
‘Tak, sami. And you will see them also.’
It’s a good sign. Twisting against the brace of the seatbelt, I reach behind my chair and stretching my fingers, I find the buckle of my rucksack and pull it into my lap. My journal is on the top, and the pen from the flight is still clipped to its cover. I’d made notes on the ride over under the dim light of the overhead panel. My handwriting almost unreadable. As I begin making notes, I feel Artem’s gaze on my shoulder. I close the book.
‘Notes,’ I say, ‘I actually have a pretty terrible memory.’
‘My handwriting— ’
His eyes are on the road but I can feel the weight of his attention filling the car. The article I’d read had been pretty straightforward. I just wanted to have a feel for the place. Making notes was a way to pass the time until my flight was boarding, something to do whilst I cooled down my scolding americano with my breath. I clear my throat and turn the page.
‘There’s a real chance that the world’s most contaminated landscape will become Europe’s largest wildlife reserve, but the long term effects of the radiation aren’t yet understood. On the surface nature is surviving and adapting; it’s easy to forget how toxic the area is.’
I flick ahead a few pages, tracing my hand down the lines of scrawl, trying to pick out a thread of something that sounds surprising or insightful. I open my mouth but it’s Artem who speaks.
‘She has more to fear from us.’
He sounds out the last word so that the s becomes a z, and it’s a sound that makes me look up, makes me stop reading my own words.
‘Humans,’ he continues, ‘always more dangerous than radiation. Yes, okay, so ground is toxic but we?’ he pauses, sweeps his hand over the wheel as if showcasing the treeline we’re following, ‘we are worse. Few people now, cars, guns, farms. We should not be surprised by this — is us who are more deadly, yes?’
There’s no air conditioning in the car and yet the skin on my arms turns gooseflesh.
It’s mid-afternoon when we arrive in the old company town of Pripyat. Even as a naturalist when I hear Chernobyl, it’s the human tragedy I think of first: this city of abandoned buckle shoes and rusted wire cribs. Where utensils still lie on restaurant tables ready for patrons who couldn’t cancel their reservations. The ferris wheel frame hangs its rusting gondolas like lanterns.
Tour guides lead small groups between curbsides where the only thing that driven now are leaves in autumn. Moss is a thick shag over the concrete. Silver birches split cement blocks just so their branches can lean to the sun. There’s a forest of poplars on the soccer field. Pine trees have pushed up roof tiles sending silver veins through plastered walls. Human engineering — dust. Boars snuffle the gutters. Foxes and wolves slip between empty doorways. Samovars shine in shattered pieces on a cafe patio. Only the natural world can thrive so unsupervised. We don’t linger in Pripyat, and I’m glad. This was home, once, to many people. Now it’s a museum without a curator.
We’re a little way out of Pripyat when Artem slows the car to thumb at a one-storey wooden building on the roadside. The house’s roof is split, sagging in the middle. Silver birches have sprouted through the tiles, exposing their bare black branches to the outside air. The wooden gate is open but there’s no welcome beyond it. The place is long abandoned. It’s small garden, enclosed by a stone wall, is filled with sharp curling brambles and coarse bushes.
‘People, they stay for famine and fascism, but radiation?’ Artem tuts loudly, and, over the bend of his elbow, I see a rusting Russian car in the grass. The trunk is popped open, bicycle handlebars jut out like antlers. Artem accelerates us away, but I turn to watch the house growing smaller through the back window. I think of my mother in London putting damp towels over the door and window frames. I think of having to leave and then never coming home.
I knew that the Exclusion Zone wasn’t entirely abandoned. There are still workers at Chernobyl but their exposure to the radiation is now carefully managed. A new company town was built, too, similar to Pripyat but outside the zone. The workers arrive from Slavutych by bus.
‘But not everybody leave.’
‘I’ve heard about Slavutych,’ I say.
But he shakes his head. That’s not what he means at all.
We pull up alongside a meadow. He kills the engine. My mouth feels like adhesive, and I wait for the click of his door before I reach down into the footwell for a soda. I watch him light a cigarette as he leans against the hood of the car. Crack, hiss and I swallow the warm cola in short, quick gulps. The afternoon is warm, pleasant. Its only blemish a single cottontail cloud holding over the horizon. I throw the can into the footwell, joining Artem outside. The meadow is as wide as a football field and bordered by trees on its far edge. Pine trees cover more than 50% of the Exclusion Zone. I remember underlining that in my notebook. It’s extraordinary. Pripyat with its decaying sidewalks, the wafering paint of its window sills; its every achievement dissolving over time, unbuttoned like a shirt worn to redundancy but that isn’t happening out here. Artem waves to me, and I climb out of the car. He’s smiling, clapping his hands together and barely 10 seconds later, a boar barrels out of the treeline and across the road towards the meadow. Its body is covered in thick wiry black hair and is as round as a keg. The boar stops to smell the grass.
‘Put on your shoes and dosimeter’ Artem says.
Back in the car, I tear open the plastic covering, pull the foot protectors over the soles of my tennis shoes and slip the elastic of the face mask over my head, letting the cup rest against my collarbone. I feel ridiculous. I feel anxious. I grab the counter and follow Artem into the grass. We go further, and I see where it thins, where the soil is exposed to the sunlight and is dry, cracked open in wide wrinkles, potholed. A series of half-collapsed fence posts rise like broken bones. He passes his counter over them and the clicks come quickly. Milky fungi climb in circles at the base. Cesium-137 is one of the deadly isotopes released in 1986 and is still found in the soil here.
‘Are we safe?’ I ask
I nod, worried that he’ll hear the thumping in my temple and chest. We’re safe, I remind myself. There’s nothing to worry about. It’s not as if I’m going to get on all fours and start chowing down, but what if I trip? What if I fall here and…
And I do, and the boar changes direction, parting the tall grass until exposed again, it disappears back into the trees. The counter is still clicking. I feel sorry for the boar. It’s stupid, but it doesn’t have a counter. It doesn’t have Artem telling it not to snuffle for mushrooms here. I wonder if it knows that its home is contaminated. I wonder if it knows when it roams over fields, through fences, over international borders, that it carries radiation on its skin and in its blood and that its contaminating other homes, too. I wonder if it knows what we’ve done to it.
Artem sees her first. There’s a stoop to her shoulders and the red triangle of a headscarf rising and falling on the back of her neck as she walks. The old woman is a hundred yards away from us, but I can see the netted string bag that she carries and it’s filled with potatoes. I forget where we are for a moment. This isn’t so strange. Then I feel the press of the mask against my shoulder and hear the whisper of the shoe protectors rubbing on the grass as I step forward. The geiger counter is still clicking.
‘We should warn her,’ I say, the alarm rising the pitch in my voice. Artem doesn’t react.
‘How can she not know?’
And he turns to the woman and whistles. The sound is shrill and loud. He holds up his hand and waves. The woman looks over but doesn’t return the greeting. She doesn’t stop walking or change direction. The grass rises around her up to her knees. I step forward, but Artem lightly takes my wrist. I shake him off, furious.
‘Tell her it’s not safe.’
‘She is samosely.’
‘I don’t know what that means.’
But I do know that it’ll be another 24,000 years until the area inside reactor 4’s polycarbonate sarcophagus will be safe for human habitation. 24,000 years ago was The Upper Paleolithic era. I try to imagine it: the shape of the world when Chernobyl’s reactor is clean. We won’t be here to see it. Even out here, the Exclusion Zone won’t be safe for at least a century.
‘Samosely,’ Artem says, ‘is returner. Person who come back.’
‘It’s not legal.’
‘187 villages evacuated, yes. But some old people come back. Is choice.’
The woman was gone but I feel her footfalls behind my ribs. I thought of the counter when Artem had held it up to the contaminated fungi. What would possess anyone to return here? To gather food here? Almost all of it was contaminated.
‘Home, I think, it is where heart is.’ he says.
We wait for a moment to watch where the woman disappeared. We walk a little further down the road to where the posts are still standing. I think about the woman in the meadow. I think about my mother and her bones lying in that wooden box under the neat stone cross in the churchyard of a parish that she’d barely known. I think of how terrified she was in London. Maybe it’s easier to be fearful in strange places. I wonder if that’s why the Samosely return. Maybe Artem is right about home. I start talking.
When I was twelve I’d stood on the front porch of our home in California watching with my mother as flames from the biggest forest fire in a decade drew nearer. A decision was made to leave, but it wasn’t made by my mother. We’d almost waited too long, and by then there’d been no hand wringing, no towels laid across windows and doors, but then we’d always been lucky before, and we’d have been lucky again if the wind hadn’t changed and the flames hadn’t grown in over the door, sucked up the curtains, burned through the ceilings of our bedrooms, into the attic and out onto roof. We threw what we could into my father’s station wagon. Everything else burned. My mother’s family home: a scorch of earth in wide open space. It was the house her Grandfather had built. The house then tended by his widow, then their orphaned daughter, and then by my mother and perhaps she’d imagined, one day by me. We’d meant to go back. We’d said we’d go back. We never did. My mother dimmed. We settled in San Diego, but I’d always wondered at my mother’s nostalgia: her inability to see beyond what we’d lost. It was just wood and glass. It wasn’t skin and blood and bone. I remember now how much I resented her sadness. I tell Artem this as we walk along the edge of the meadow. Our foot protectors making the sound of the sea against the road. A pocket of trees are ahead and his eyes fix on them. He holds up the counter and its slow, steady clicks fill the silence between us. I can’t be sure that he’s understood the story, but I keep talking.
‘We were shopping for my sister’s birthday. My mother was holding up some balloons that she thought would look nice and then…right in the middle of the store she died, just like that. Cardiac arrest brought on by a condition we never even knew she had.’
‘Broken heart,’ he says, eventually.
‘We say heart attack in English,’ I reply, my tongue clumsy in my mouth as my eyes fill with tears. The moment the words leave my lips, I know he’s right.
The Samosely slipped over the fences and borders, choosing to live inside the toxic shells of their ancestor’s homes rather than in apartments in Kiev. I think my mother might have done the same.
Artem holds up his hand.
‘Radiation?’ I ask, pausing mid-stride.
The counter isn’t clicking. He shakes his head, smiling. When I follow his line of sight I see them: a dozen horses standing in a half-circle with their necks dipped into the grass. These are Przewalski’s: the last breed of wild horse on Earth. I’d only ever seen them in documentaries. Their pale bellies, rusted red fur and thick heads are like those Stone Age horses painted in ochre on the walls of French caves. It feels both familiar and strange to see them now.
‘They shouldn’t be here,’ I whisper.
‘They are helping.’
‘That’s not the same thing.’
These aren’t indigenous to Ukraine or Europe, but they’re seen as necessary: they eat the toxic grass so that it can’t grow long enough to burn. Fire would be a disaster. All that smoke blown longways across Europe. All those towels pressed to windows and doors. We crouch and begin shuffling towards them. The counter clicks again and again, but Artem ignores it. One horse raises its neck and then another horse does, and then they all do. The breeze lifts to flatten their manes to their necks. The trees around us shush like a wave breaking on the ocean. Artem moves forward, and the counter clicks again and the spell is broken. Turning on their flanks, the horses bound through the trees. I release the breath I’d been holding. They looked healthy. They looked happy, too, but I knew that couldn’t be the full story. They didn’t belong here in the Exclusion Zone. I wonder if in some way that they understood that. I wonder if they’d ever felt the urge to run for home. If there was some part of them that remembered their ancestors had once roamed the Mongolian Steppe.
Susan James is a writer from Worcestershire. She’s been published twice in Mslexia, was a runner-up in The Reader Berlin’s Summer Nights short story competition and was awarded second place in the Brilliant Flash Fictionaftermath competition. She writes short stories and flash fiction but is now (rather tentatively) starting to plan a novel. She has a degree in War Studies but is a blogger by trade. You can find her on Twitter as @jamesy_sooz