Diary: Yevgenia Belorusets, “The Stars“ (a story)
Photo: From “Victories of the Defeated,” a cycle of more than 150 photographs and texts created by Yevgenia Belorusets during the 2014 war in Donbas, devoted to post-industrial Ukraine, to work in coal mines on the edge of the war zone, and to contemporary forms of labor amidst military conflict
The days drag on with no meaning. It’s really quiet in A., where we live. Nobody shoots at anybody; nobody asks for explanations for no reason; roadblocks don’t work the way they do at B. Here, you can drive through a roadblock unmolested, especially if you are taking a jitney bus or taxi.
I don’t orient myself well in the city where I’ve spent my whole life.
I don’t understand who these people are: the ones I consider my friends, the ones I get together with every Thursday to play cards for small change while consuming a mountain of cookies and candy. What scares me most is stability. It’s quiet, but an unsteady kind of quiet, giving way, like a bog or a swamp. That’s it, a swamp. Not a soul around. I am searching for my husband in the forest, in the middle of water, knee-deep. Did this happen to me? Or did none of it happen? You’re going to laugh. It happened not to me but to my neighbor. For some reason I always find myself in her place when I tell her story. Don’t chalk me up for crazy. I often have dreams that I’m by a tree line, gallons of blood running everywhere, a cart completely covered with bodies, they’re shooting us down, a firing squad. It must have come from a history textbook. I have nothing left to do but to climb into the cart, hide under the bodies, and smear blood over my face so that they count me as one of the dead.
Whereas in real life, rather than in a dream, this is what happened. Last year, my neighbor went searching for her husband—they had taken him prisoner, but then they said they had let him go. She searched for him day after day for many days, and in the end found him in the forest! It took a lot of time. She started in the nearby villages, then she searched in town, and then at his relatives’ places. Finally, she took to wandering around the forest, calling him by name until he answered. The forest is a good place to shout out somebody’s name—you can even howl.
They held hands and walked through our vast forest. Whenever I remember my neighbor’s story the forest strikes me as impenetrable, gigantic. The trees of the forest rose high above them like ship masts. Sergey, her husband, walked beside her; they moved very lightly, with cushioned tread, as if they had feathers on their soles, or a layer of moss. She said that the moss in the forest began to understand them; the moss spread out before them and became their compliant ground, carpet, and pillow for their every step, each step so soft no one heard them. They found a path that, in three hours, brought them to a roadway, and from there the town was close at hand. Night had fallen but they nonetheless learned very quickly how to see really well in the dark. And despite the cold they learned not to feel cold.
I learned that, too: how hot my hand has become. A guy I know was riding his bike and saw them, the way they were walking on the road, but he didn’t stop. Many people say that the most important thing for us is to have peace. But I’m going to say to you that peace doesn’t matter. Something else matters. But I don’t know what. I just know peace isn’t it.
While the war was going on I felt calm, because I was living from one shelling to another. I wasn’t living day by day, but minute by minute and hour by hour. My friends were with me. No matter what they talked about, their words lacked any kind of importance. In those troubled hours and days their words were inaudible; once uttered, they became objects, things—something solid and possessing form rather than meaning.
Right on through the gluey green wall of rain, a neighbor in a blue dress ran to the entryway: ran to save a hen. They called the hen Vika. She survived the war, she became a victor, and so they named her Victoria. The neighbor survived, too. The hen sometimes hid in our basement; she would approach many of us and she lost her fear of human beings. On one of those days the neighbor announced that she couldn’t bear it any longer, sitting below ground and guessing about what was going on above—with their house, with that birdbrain Vika. We laughed at our neighbor, at her inability to sit still. Then the neighbor showed us a page from the paper, The Town News, and there was a horoscope printed there for each day. Some signs were given hour by hour.
It turned out that Pisces could be sure of their well-being and safety from three to five pm that day. And so my neighbor, a pure Pisces without any impurities, could easily leave the basement. There might be rumbling somewhere up above but nothing would touch her, almost for certain.
Pisces kept Victoria company, and they had a good time together. Everything felt surprising to me that day and I even believed the rumors that it was Canada that was waging war against us—over the discovery of new deposits of valuable coal. Some of us were already deeply convinced of the fact. We sat in the basement thinking about Canadian aggression, about how greedy, vindictive, and heartless other countries could be. “Those bombs are made in Canada,” the whisper swirled around the cellar, and for some reason we found it comforting.
We all started to study the horoscope. Scorpio was safe tomorrow from noon until almost evening. That was how I went out for my first stroll. I walked around a city where that was both smoky and bright. The streets were empty, the windows had no glass, the ground seemed to tremble a little, while the thin trees curled down under the weight of their leaves. We’ve never had such quiet before.
By the dumpster I met an alcoholic I knew. He was totally sober. Like me, he stood there, looking around in surprise. It turned out he was a Scorpio. Naturally his instinct for self-preservation brought him up to the surface. I didn’t have problems returning to the cellar. We started making calculations so that we may go into town during safe hours. Nothing happened to us—nothing special, nothing terrible— because we always made it in the breaks between shooting.
These days I, too, am reading the horoscope. Today, after six and until nine, I’m advised to “seek seclusion and privacy. It is a suitable time for reflection, best spent at home.” This can be interpreted as saying the time would be unsafe above. Believe it or not, with such veiled recommendations, the horoscope informed our whole building when there would be immediate danger to life during a shelling.
The shelling has been over for a long while now. Still, the horoscope keeps giving the same recommendations, the wording unchanged, but we no longer understand it.
The stars used to be on our side: You might say they worked for us. Now it’s as if everything has broken down, the sky does whatever the sky wants. Time has turned its back on our city. There’s nothing happening.
Translated by Eugene Ostashevsky
Read poet, scholar, and translator Eugene Ostashevsky on the texts and photographs of Yevgenia Belorusets
Yevgenia Belorusets is a Ukrainian writer, journalist, artist, and photographer who lives between Kyiv and Berlin. She is currently taking shelter in Kyiv. Her photographic work appeared in the Ukrainian pavilion at the 56th Venice Biennale. “The Stars” will appear next week in the English translation of her first work of fiction, Lucky Breaks, translated and introduced by Eugene Ostashevsky. Eugene Ostashevsky is the author of the books of poems The Pirate Who Does Not Know the Value of Pi and The Life and Opinions of DJ Spinoza.
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