Misha experiences the first signs of unrest in the Donetsk region of Ukraine
Misha was the one who showed me a dove for the first time.
It was early spring, that magical time of year when coats and sunshine go hand in hand. Puddles of rainwater were splotched on every street, reflecting every cloud in the bluest blue sky ever like a thousand mirror shards. We were standing by the old swing set on the hill, the one with the rusted rings and peeling red paint. It was a sad little swing, I always thought; someone had built it a decade ago, alone, in the middle of nowhere, and then forgotten all about it. But that was okay. It was ours, me and Misha’s.
I remember thinking that as I stood up on the swing, swaying back and forth slowly as I gained speed. Misha stood next to me, leaning against the yellow metal poles as he thoughtfully bit into a green apple. I followed his gaze to the crooked, solitary birch tree nearby, the only other thing worth seeing on the hill besides the swing. I could hear a clamor of high-pitched voices bickering somewhere in its feeble limbs.
“Hey, look!” Misha finally spoke, excitedly pointing at one of the highest branches. “Varya, do you see that?”
I squinted, following his finger. On top of the tree, hidden in the vivid leaves, I made out a small white shape. “Is that a white squirrel?”
Misha shook his head. “No. Where have you ever seen a white squirrel?” “I read about those.”
Skeptical, Misha decided to ignore my comment.
“That’s a dove,” he said softly. “A real one. Isn’t it pretty?”
I cocked my head, looking up at the figure again. This time I made out a pair of delicate folded wings tucked into the snowy-white feathers, fluttering slightly in the breeze. Two tiny black dots sat above a gray beak, making the dove’s expression seem permanently surprised.
“Oh.” I shrugged. “Yeah, I see it now.”
Misha kept grinning. Leave it up to him to pay so much attention, I thought as I glanced in his direction. Sometimes he honestly reminded me of a bird himself: messy jet-black hair, big blue eyes, built a bit too scrawny for an eleven-year-old boy at the time. He didn’t look much like me or anyone else in our Ukrainian town of Donetsk, really. I had long blonde hair, amber eyes, and freckles all over my face. No one would ever say that we looked alike, but we felt almost like siblings anyway, growing up together and living in adjacent apartment buildings.
“You know what’s cool?” he asked, turning back to me. “Doves are a symbol of peace and freedom, I read. Maybe seeing one is like a good luck charm for us to always be safe and happy.”
I rolled my eyes. “That sounds kind of made up. Books aren’t always right.”
Misha stepped back, mock offended. “How dare you! Books have the answer to everything.”
“Where’d you find that?”
“I read it”—Misha sighed—“in a book.”
I snorted a laugh, punching him lightly. “All right, all right. Kidding. Let’s pretend this is a good-luck charm.”
Misha smiled, glancing at the dove one last time before it spread its wings and hopped off the branch, catching the breeze and soaring away. We watched it for a long time as it disappeared into a barely visible pale speck in the sky, flying high among the clouds.
“Ice cream?” Misha suggested, turning to me. “You bet.”
I guess I could say I noticed something strange going on a long time ago. My blurriest, earliest memories began when I was five and Varya was three.
Our town wasn’t strictly Ukrainian or Russian. And I never thought of it as being strictly in either country either; it was almost at the border—somewhere there, in between both lands. Many Russian families such as me and my mom lived there and even more Ukrainian ones did too, and it was completely normal. There were no disagreements or fighting. It always felt like one big family to me, holding each other up and looking out for one another.
Me and my mom loved going on walks at the time. We loved nature. We loved a nice breeze. I mean, we still do, but I guess it got tougher as time passed and events started unfolding.
We were at the local park that beautiful July evening. I always liked the park, honestly. Trees draped in lush greenery towered above delicate benches set deep in the shade; tidy sand pathways created a big loop around a center playground where several swing sets and a slide seemed to bring all the kids out.
I was on the slide, of course. As a five-year-old, a slide to me seemed like an endless, curving road. A rollercoaster. A challenge. A feat only for the bravest souls to take on.
My mom was leaning against the swing set, a small smile playing on her face. I remember the moment captured perfectly in time; strands of her chocolate brown hair tickling her face, her green eyes lighting up every time I screamed with delight. I even remember her jacket; it was a faded pink color, like curtains in an old lady’s apartment.
I didn’t say anything as my mom ushered me into our dark apartment, closing the door behind us and locking all three locks.
On my twentieth trip down the slide, my mom suddenly moved away from her spot against the pole, her face hardening. She looked up at the sky and then to some of the buildings on the far side of the park before quickly walking over to me.
“Hey now, Mishka. We got to go,” she told me, taking my hand gently. I pouted. “Can I go down one more time?”
She shook her head. “I’m sorry. We’ll come back tomorrow. I promise.” “Pleeeeeease?”
She didn’t answer immediately; instead, she pressed a finger to her lips. She seemed to almost freeze, as if listening intently for something.
I tried to quiet my breathing, listening too.
That was when I heard it the first time. The sound that haunted my dreams for the rest of my life.
It was a muffled boom, almost sounding like someone hit a giant metal sheet against a brick wall far, far away. At first I thought it was thunder. A second one followed a minute later, and then a handful of them. I gripped my mom’s finger, looking up at her with wide, terrified eyes.
“Mommy, is it going to rain?”
She sighed. “I don’t know. But we better get back home.”
I silently stumbled after her as she dragged me back three blocks towards our apartment. I didn’t say anything as she punched the button for the sixth floor and the elevator flew upward with a small ding as a bright “6” flickered onto the screen above the door. I didn’t say anything as my mom ushered me into our dark apartment, closing the door behind us and locking all three locks. I didn’t say anything up until I finally climbed into bed in my favorite blue Spider Man pajamas and turned on my star-shaped nightlight, which glowed orange and slowly shifted to a yellow and then green and blue and purple until I tore my eyes off and glanced at my mom, who handed me my teddy bear and smiled.
“You sleep well, all right?” she said softly, stroking my hair. I nodded. “Mommy, why was there thunder today?”
She took a long look out the window, where the sky had settled into a purple- blue twilight dotted with silver stars. When she turned back, she took my hand and squeezed it lightly.
“I’m not sure, Mishka,” she whispered. “Don’t worry about it, though. Promise me you’ll go to sleep once I close the door, okay?”
I snuggled under my blanket. “Okay.” “Goodnight, sweetie.”
I remember hearing the door close gently before finally letting the low buzz of motorcycles speeding down the streets pull me to sleep.
* * *
Over the next few months my five-year-old brain burrowed those memories deep, deep down, and hearing the strange gunshots slowly became part of my daily life. I suppose I didn’t understand it was anything abnormal. I heard them almost every week once it neared twilight, somewhere in the distance or sometimes even seeming closer. My mom always tensed up and led me home in a hurry, so the sounds started being like an alarm of sorts.
A year or two later, I recall walking to school one day when I saw a military jeep zip across the road next to me. It was one of those cars that looked like it had splotches of many shades of olive green all over it like a forest. I looked up at my mom, who was eyeing the disappearing vehicle warily.
“It’s a cool car,” I said, pulling up the straps of my backpack.
“It’s a military car,” she told me, which was the first time I’d ever heard that word. “It belongs to the Ukrainian army.”
“Why is it here, then?” I asked, puzzled. Avdiivka was never an important town to anyone, let alone the army. The most famous thing here was the Avdiivka Coke Plant, the largest coke producer in Ukraine, which provided us with coal and was the main source of all of our power and heat companies.
My mom didn’t respond for a few minutes. Then, she crouched down beside me. “Listen, Mishka. I want you to understand something,” she said, looking into my eyes. “Right now it’s not very safe. That is why the army is here; they’re trying to figure out what’s going on and why we hear strange sounds at night. Promise me you’ll be careful, okay? If anything happens to you, anything at all, promise to tell me.”
I frowned. “Why is it not safe?”
“I’ll tell you when you grow up a little.” My mom ruffled my hair gently. “But right now I need to know that you’ll come to me about anything.”
“I promise.” I nodded, smiling at her. My mom’s face softened and she smiled back, standing back up and taking my hand the way she always did.
“Well, you better get to school. Come on.”
* * *
Winter break ended on Jan. 11, which I discovered with a pang of annoyance two nights before the date. I spent nearly all of winter break sledding, playing video games, and hanging out with Varya every second I had available, so when my mom reminded me of my impending fate, I burst into tears.
Once school started, everything became boring and monotonous once more. Classes were held in cold classrooms with even colder teachers that droned on about fractions and conjunctions and states of matter until I found myself watching numbers blink on the clock, waiting for each forty-five minutes to be over. Homework was assigned every day save for Fridays, when the professors would find enough mercy in them to let us off with just some extra work in class. Every day after school I would come home, eat, and then run off to Varya’s after finishing my homework. Since she was only five at the time, she didn’t yet go to school and sat around all day waiting for me to visit her. I’d stay in her apartment for hours, telling her funny stories and describing all the wonders of elementary school while she laughed along. Then once my mom called, I’d bid her goodbye and return home for dinner.
The fighting continues in a deadlock near Donetsk and Avdiivka, as Russian separatists and the Ukrainian army clash.
After dinner, my new obsession became tuning the radio and listening to the latest news. It was such an astonishing little thing; a tiny gray box which I kept on top of the dresser that could be turned into a talking-broadcasting machine with just a few turns of the knob. I would play with it every night, extending the metal rod to different lengths and pressing buttons until the static turned to music and sports reporters screaming the latest statistics in soccer matches or tennis.
I loved watching TV. But listening to the radio made me feel like I was a few decades behind, lost somewhere in the 1980s and such, and I loved it.
The night of Jan. 30, after finishing my chicken and rice, I retired to my room as usual and took out my radio, plopping down on the carpet and beginning to tune it in. It always felt so satisfying, listening into the loud, blank static and then hearing it finally start changing frequency, shifting to sounds that would click together into a voice. I flipped through some channels lazily, wondering what to pick. One was a soothing piano playing Chopin. Another was some sort of audio comedy show with horrible artificial laughter that turned on after every sentence said by the characters. A couple of channels down, a man was yelling out commentary over a soccer match in Spain. Next came a church worship group.
I was about to go back and listen to the comedy show until I accidentally clicked the button once more, taking myself to a channel I’d never gone on before. At first I heard nothing; then as I adjusted the volume, I finally began catching snippets of some sort of report being listed off. I turned the volume all the way up, intrigued.
“. . . the fighting continues in a deadlock near Donetsk and Avdiivka, as Russian separatists and the Ukrainian army clash. It is still unclear whether the situation is being pushed further towards civilian regions, but several reports of gunshots being heard in the area have been received within the last twenty-four hours, meaning the battle is moving closer towards Avdiivka. It is advisable . . .”
I froze, the radio still in my shaking hands. Then, after a second, I clambered up and ran to the kitchen, where my mom was sitting in front of her computer looking stressed.
“Mom, mom.” I tapped her shoulder. “Listen to the radio.”
She tore her eyes from the screen and watched as I turned the volume up again and set it down on the table. The news blared through the speakers, every word seeming filled with panic.
“Where did you find this channel, Misha?” My mom looked at me with serious eyes.
“I-I don’t know, I was just trying to find something interesting,” I stuttered, my eyes wide. “Why is there fighting?”
My mom ignored the question and instead took the radio in her own hands, leaning in to read the few numbers at the top of the channel name. 107.8 FM.
“Is it alright if I hold on to this for now?” my mom said, patting the top of the radio. I shrugged, still uncomfortable. “Yeah. But why did they say there’s fighting?” My mom pursed her lips the way she did whenever she didn’t want to tell me something.
“I’m not sure,” she told me, clapping my shoulder. “But I think it’s about time for you to go to sleep, don’t you think?”
“I guess.” I reluctantly retreated back to my room. Closing the door behind me, I grabbed my pajamas from my shelf and changed into them, leaving my sweater and pants on the stool next to my bed. I climbed into bed, burrowing in my blankets until I felt all warm and snuggled up, before turning off the light switch and pressing the button on my nightlight. Eyes glued to the changing colors, I began counting the number of times I saw the light turn red until I unnoticeably drifted asleep.
* * *
I woke up at nine, immediately bolting to the bathroom to brush my teeth. Nine! I was supposed to wake up an hour ago. School started at eight thirty; I’d be so late! I jogged back to my room and whipped out my uniform, tugging it on as
I stumbled into the kitchen to find my mom passed out at the table, her hand still wrapped loosely over a mug of cold coffee. I prodded her shoulder.
I shook her harder until she finally cracked an eye open and yawned. I stopped. “Mom!” I said, trying to convey a sense of urgency through my voice, “I’m already late for school! My alarm didn’t go off at eight, so I slept for an extra hour!
Everyone’s probably in math right now!”
My mom sat up and stretched, taking a sip of her overnight coffee and wincing. She glanced at her computer screen, which had turned off while she was asleep, and pressed the “on” button. Nothing happened.
“Ugh,” she yawned. “Can’t even check the time now. Nine, you say?”
I nodded. “My digital clock wasn’t working, so I looked at the old mechanical one on the wall. But I need to hurry! My teachers will be so mad at me.”
My mom stood up, still looking tired, flicking the light switch with her finger. Both of us looked up at the ceiling, expecting for the lights to turn on and bathe the kitchen in a golden glow, but the room stayed dark. I frowned.
My mom persistently flipped the switch a couple more times, as if channeling her annoyance into it, but every attempt came as fruitless as the last.
“Why aren’t the lights turning on?” I asked, fearful.
My mom shook her head. “Weird. Did the power get cut off at night?”
She slipped her feet into her boots and unlocked the apartment door, stepping out into the sixth-floor lobby. The lights were still out there as well, but our neighbors’ door was wide open too, and voices were coming from the living room.
There was no light either, save for what looked to be a half-burnt candle sitting on the table next to a vase of dried roses. We stepped inside, my mom knocking on the door to make our presence known.
Both of us looked up at the ceiling, expecting for the lights to turn on and bathe the kitchen in a golden glow, but the room stayed dark.
A plump middle-aged woman shuffled out of the living room, still in a bathrobe, her pearly white hair in curling rollers. She half-smiled at me and turned to my mom, greeting her hurriedly.
“Come on in, come on in,” she said, her speech tinged with a slight Ukrainian accent. “We’re all in the living room. Nobody is exactly sure what happened with the electricity.”
I shivered. I hadn’t noticed until then that it was a couple of dozens of degrees colder in the building than usual, almost as if we were actually outside. The lady clicked her tongue worriedly and pulled a coat out of her closet, wrapping it around me. I thanked her quietly, looking up at my mom, who nodded at me before following our neighbor to the living room.
The room looked a lot like ours: a long gray couch against the wall, on which sat three more people, a round wooden coffee table, and several cabinets along with the TV hung up on the wall. Framed photos dotted one of the walls among pieces of paper with words and doodles which looked like they were made by a little kid my age. I grinned at a drawing of a green bear standing next to a stick figure twice his size, thinking I could easily sketch something better than that.
I turned to look at the people on the couch. They were probably some of the other people that lived on my floor, maybe one of the floors above or below us. One was a middle-aged man with a potbelly covered with a tight-fitting striped tank top who was taking up half the space on the couch. He stroked his thick mustache thoughtfully, looking somewhat angry and sleepy at the same time. Next to him, leaning as far away from him as possible, was a young woman of no more than twenty-five years old. She was clearly the most well-dressed person in the room, sporting a bright pink coat and a matching skirt with a fuzzy hem which took all my willpower to not run up and feel. She was rocking back and forth nervously, fiddling with her gloves as she glanced up at our hostess.
“I’m pretty sure the power is out in the entire area,” the third occupant of the room noted. He was also young, dressed in a simple white T-shirt and jeans. He twirled an unlit cigarette in his fingers.
“I believe so,” our hostess replied, wrapping herself even tighter in her bathrobe. “Or . . . well, none of the phones are working, at least. I’m assuming something happened to the electricity.”
“And the h-heating,” the lady in the pink breathed. “I woke up f-feeling like I was sleeping outside in the s-snow.”
My mom stiffened up slightly. “Is this because of the battle going onby Donetsk?” “By Avdiivka, you mean,” the young man replied with a sigh. “It’s moved closer to us.”
The lady in the pink stopped shivering for a second. “Has it?”
The potbellied man sat up with a huff, finally letting go of his mustache. The lady in the pink inched away.
“Unfortunately, yes,” he said, his deep voice resonating in the room. “One of the sides probably knocked out the power while they shell each other.”
My mom glanced at me with an unreadable expression. I pretended to be interested in the fly on the table.
“What is the fighting over? Land?” she asked.
“Control of the territory,” the potbellied man said gruffly. “The separatists are all in for Russia taking the Donbas oblast back so that the anti-Russian terrorists stop shooting at the Russian population, but the Ukrainian military disagrees. They’re clashing to see who will have full control over this region.”
There was a pause. The lady in the bathrobe let out a cough. “I’ll go prepare some tea.”
Everyone watched her leave silently before snapping all eyes back on the man on the couch.
“Why c-can’t an agreement be reached? Can’t they contact the government for backup instead of trying to s-separate from Ukraine?” the lady in the pink questioned.
“We have tried. The government doesn’t have much they can do about it.” Potbelly shrugged. “Can’t say they care about some small towns on the outskirts. Russia would actually defend us, though. That’s why the separatists want to take control of the area.”
My mom nodded slowly, looking down at the floor with a calculating gaze. “Sir, and yourself? Ukrainian native?”
The man boomed a laugh.
“Oh, no,” he grinned toothily, “I’m Russian all the way. I moved here ’bout a decade ago to work on the coke plant. Most of the jobs in the incorporation closed down a while back, though, so I’ve been living off of my savings since then.”
The young man holding a cigarette blew his hair out of his face.
“Yeah, the terrorists shot a little too close to the factory,” he said, leaning against the wall casually. “They’ve been doing this for years now, shelling and sending threats.”
Both my mom and the lady in pink turned white. “Threats?”
He shrugged nonchalantly. “Well, yeah. Saying stuff like, ‘Go back to where you came from or else,’ ‘Die, Russian scum.’ Most of the terrorists only pelt our area with bullets just cause they hate Russians, you know?”
Our hostess, still in her bathrobe, entered the room again with a sour expression. “No hot water, sadly.”
“I guess that got turned off too,” he noted. “All of this is so dumb.” “What, having no power?”
“No, the things that are happening,” he said, looking up at the ceiling. “The fighting and the terrorism. The disagreements caused by politics.”
I didn’t understand half the things said that morning. I didn’t know what threats were or “politics.” I didn’t even understand why the power went out for a week and school got canceled; I had to learn about it much, much later.
But I knew something important was happening. Something life-changing, judging from the nights my mom spent up after that, reading and circling newspapers. Judging from the thousands of messages she sent and received for weeks after that. I knew it would change my life, for the worse or for the better.
. . . to be continued in the May/June 2024 issue of Stone Soup