“This high! This high! The price of mandarins is this high!” An early morning drunk reaches for the sky, showing a woman sweeping the stairs with a birch twig broom exactly how inflation has affected his grocery bill.
“P-ost Off-ice,” reads Yehor slowly. He’s learning how to read in school, stops at every store front or billboard with block letters and sounds out the letters.
“Yep. This is the post office,” I don’t want to discourage his curiosity but I am late and we don’t have time for an extended lesson. “It’s where people send letters all over the world. We can send one to Canada if you want, but not right now. Right now, your grandmother is waiting for you and your mother is waiting for me.”
Yehor’s attention has already shifted—he slides over a frozen puddle, then stops and turns back. He bends over, looks into the cloudy puddle, then picks up his leg and smashes the ice with the heel of his boot, laughing as he breaks through to the water underneath.
“Look,” he says, pointing with one hand at the busted-up puddle and with the other at a broken window in an abandoned restaurant that never got to see opening night. “They look the same.” The building is now plastered with flyers - Thai kickboxing, plastic-metal windows and balconies for sale, apartments for rent (looking for quiet, non-conflictual person, HAS STABLE WORK).
“They didn’t until you smashed the ice with your boot,” I point out.
“R-un, r-ab-bit, r-un!” he responds, laughing and kicking the ice again.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” I’m starting to get annoyed.
“Run, rabbit, run!” He kicks again and again, laughing harder with each kick as if there’s something hilarious hidden in the ice that only he can see.
Three old ladies went caroling under the linden
The rabbit follows and plays the violin nicely
Beauty Salon is one of the dozens of beauty salons in Kiev literally called Beauty Salon. They are usually located on the main floors of apartment buildings or in underground malls beside electronics repairs shops, florists, and wool glove-sock-and-insole sellers; this particular Beauty Salon is located across from the monument to Soviet Soldiers in Victory Park in Kiev’s Dniprovskyj region and boasts “20% off for pensioners” in block letters above the entrance.
Marichka has been getting her hair cut by Oksana for the past 15 years, loyally following her from beauty salon to beauty salon as they moved, went out of business, or let Oksana go because they couldn’t pay her.
Inside, the salon is covered in gold and blue garlands, plastic Santa Claus figurines and glittery cut-outs that read “Happy New Year!” In Ukraine, the holidays extend into the middle of January and Christmas trees often adorn living rooms for several weeks after that.
“Anecdote,” announces Marichka quietly into my ear, as is custom when there’s an opportunity to tell a joke. “A man gets together with his friends to go fishing. ‘My wife is such a nagger.’ He complains. ‘She won’t stop. I say— Marina, sweetheart, Spring is in the air, flowers are blooming in the fields, birds are chirping on the branches. And all you do is nag-nag-nag.’” Marichka puts on her nagging wife voice. “‘When are you going to take out the Christmas tree!’”
She’s still giggling as we take off our coats, hang them in a second room dedicated to winter coats and boots only. Then she starts telling me a bit about Oksana.
“She’s ten years older than me and she wasn’t married for so long, but then one of her customers— a guy whose hair she’d been cutting for 9 years— well, his wife died of cancer and they started seeing each other and now she’s happier than ever.” There’s a flatscreen on the wall playing Russian music videos with the lyrics flashing across the screen, changing white to red as the teen idol sings. “She’s been through all my husbands with me.” The singer smashes his partner, asleep in their bed, in the head with an ashtray. There’s blood everywhere. He bags the unconscious body, drags it into his car and drives through the woods to a beach, where he loads the body into a rickety boat and rows out to sea. “She knows a lot about you.” The baged lover regains consciousness; they sit facing each other until the kidnapper tears off the bag, revealing the identity of his lover. “She already likes you the best.” It’s himself.
The first old lady places a pie under the linden
The rabbit follows and plays the violin nicely
“You don’t love driving?” Oksana asks as she rolls up the sleeves on her flower print shirt.
“He hates traffic,” replies Marichka for me from the makeshift barber seat, a boardroom swivel chair.
“And parking,” I add, trying not to get in the way as Oksana reaches for a drawer below me and pulls out a pair of rubber gloves.
“I love driving,” she says, pulling the latex down until it slaps against her wrist. “Running around from bus to bus with all these heavy bags? Ugh! I hate it! Now I just throw them into the car and… and the bright lights of the city! It’s like a big Christmas tree!” She snaps the second glove into place and takes a purple vinyl apron from a hook by the window, explaining that she grew up in the village, still has a house there they visit often. “Especially in the summer, when you’re leaving the city. I always leave at night— the smell of pine from the forest that’s been baking all day, the hill that you go down out of the city like some rollercoaster. There’s this barrier you cross— it’s so sudden— from the bright lights to the pitch-black of the village, it’s like diving into a rabbit hole—“ She ties the apron and slips a torn apart white garbage bag over Marichka’s head, folding it at the neck and tying it tightly over her clothes and ironing it out with the palm of her hand. A sigh of relief as she contemplates her hole— “Home.”
The second old lady places a sausage under the linden
The rabbit follows and plays the violin nicely
“They took everything,” says Oksana into the mirror as she paints white goop onto the back of Marichka’s head.
“What do you mean ‘they took everything?’” answers Marichka into the mirror. “Who took what?”
“The bank. Took everything. We lost it all. All our money, his company. You remember— Yura was a judicious person, a hard worker.”
“Stop. You mean they went bankrupt? Which bank.”
“Kyivska Rus.” The name Kyivska Rus, which refers to the ancient Ukrainian Empire, is burned onto my mind: during the Revolution of Dignity, it was pointed out to me several times that there were snipers camped out up on the roof of one of the hotels on Independence Square— between the S and K of the massive KYIVSKA RUS sign. “And yeah, that’s what they said later. But only later.”
“They didn’t give you any kind of warning?”
“Listen. One day, Yura goes to make a deposit and there are guys in bulletproof vests standing outside the bank. He asks what they’re doing there and they say they’re shooting a movie. So he goes home and checks his email to see if the bank mentioned anything— he got all his bank correspondence through email. Nothing. The next day they announced bankruptcy.” She waves the brush around as she speaks and it looks like the colouring paste is going to splash all over the salon, but the thick goop somehow sticks to the brush without a drop being spilled.
“I can’t believe it. How much did you lose?”
“I didn’t ask the specifics. We’re not even officially married, you know? And I didn’t want to make it seem like I cared— cause I don’t about that sort of stuff. You know me. But all his life savings. He had his own company, a legal education.”
“What did he do?”
“Sold turbines for sugar manufacturing.” Oksana finishes combing the dye through Marichka’s hair and pulls a pink plastic bag out of her pocket from under the apron. “He has three kids— paid for all their educations.” She twists Marichka’s hair and pulls the bag over it, letting the hair fall into the bag and tying it off so that Marichka’s head looks like a giant cartoon mushroom.
“At least he got his kids through school.”
“Now he has a sea of grandkids.” Oksana pulls her latex gloves off with a snap takes them to the nearby sink, where she rinses them off and hangs them over the edge to dry.
“We used to go on ski trips to Austria,” she explains as she washes her hands with bright orange cantaloupe-scented dish soap. “No more. And I’m not complaining, but we planned to go away— like move away for good— we saved away money and everything. But now we can’t. We rented out my house in the village and moved to a smaller apartment. And we couldn’t even take our refrigerator because we couldn’t get it through the door!”
“You should have taken the door with you!” Marichka jokes.
“You laugh but you should have seen our new place when we moved in— it was completely stripped bare.”
“Well yeah— you know Ukrainians. You work hard to buy that refrigerator and damned if you leave it for someone else!”
“Exactly. But this was next level. They took the wall sockets, stripped the bathroom tiles, the toilet! And they didn’t leave a single lock. Which nowadays doesn’t hold anyone back, anyways. Have you heard the newest thing? Robbers just screw off or cut out the whole lock. Ugh. Anyways. How do you take your coffee?”
“Milk and sugar. Same for him,” Marichka says, pre-emptively ordering me a coffee, too. In another corner of the room, another stylist has started to blow-dry her client’s hair and it is suddenly too loud for me to say I don’t want one.
The third old lady places honey under the linden
The rabbit follows and plays the violin nicely
Oksana comes back with three paper-cup coffees and three porcelain plates of homemade Napoleon torte and continues speaking as if she never stopped.
“So now one of Yura’s friends’ nephew is staying with us— just came over from LNR.” (Luhansk People’s Republic— one of the two break-away states in the Donbas Region that pledge allegiance to the Russian Federation and continue to fight Ukrainian forces with the help of Russian arms and Russian troops).
“Luhansk? Shastya? Mostky?” Marichka starts naming towns.
“I don’t remember exactly where from, but it’s difficult with him. He’s a good kid, but difficult. The things he went through…”
“Volunteer. AYDAR. Or was it AZOV?” Oksana can’t remember which volunteer battalion he fought with. She thinks a second longer as she chews and swallows her cake and then just goes on. “He’s a good kid— studied architecture at the National University here in Kiev. Then he got caught up in everything with the protests and signed up into one of the battalions— he was manning the barricades when the snipers started shooting.”
“We weren’t far from there. We might have even crossed paths.” At that time, I was moving medical supplies out of the reclaimed October Palace as Alpha forces retreated; Marichka was in the Hotel Ukraine, where many of the wounded/killed were being tended too.
“Oh maybe— his name is Valery.”
“Actually, what am I saying. it was pretty chaotic…”
“Anyways, he followed some Afghan vet to Odessa.” Military service was compulsory in Ukraine during Soviet times, which meant that numerous Ukrainians served in the war in Afghanistan in the 70s. Many of those veterans helped get protestors organized when things became more serious in January 2014. “Remember there were those soccer riots and the trade union house got burned down?”
“Yep. In the Spring. I remember cause we were in Lviv. We were supposed to play at a festival but it got cancelled. Everything got cancelled— national grieving.” Marichka finishes her cake and puts the plate down on the dresser in front of the mirror. “Thank you, Oksanka. Delicious!”
“My pleasure. So he went to Mariupol after that, and then… well, his friend gets a call from his parents in Luhansk saying come get us— it’s getting bad.”
“So he went. And they get stopped at the block post and start getting questioned. The other guy is from Luhansk so he’s fine, but Valery isn’t registered and his accent is Ukrainian….”
“They had to think— said they came to join LNR because they’re surrounded by fascists and they realize they can’t beat them alone. That one was returning home and the other decided to join him.
“Jesus. And that worked?
“They got put on that very post.”
“What? Just like that?”
“Sure. What else are they going to do with them? They need men and there they can at least keep an eye on them.”
“Listen— so they gave them kalashes and separated them.”
“They gave them kalashes?!”
“How else are they supposed to defend the post? Who’s going to listen to you without a gun?”
“Ok. So what did they do?”
“So they work their shifts for a few days without speaking to each other. At all.”
“I dunno— to seem normal, I guess. Look, this is just what Valery told me.”
“Then after a few days, they confiscate rocket launchers on the post and Valery gets given one to look tougher on the post. His friend somehow noticed that and decided it was the right time.”
“To bust out.”
“What do you mean bust out?”
“There was some make-shift tower that he was manning and as soon as his shift started, he climbed up and started picking off all the guards.”
“And Valery knew, so he shot the rocket launcher into the main barricade.”
“What? How did he know?”
“He just knew. And they commandeered some car and drove to get his parents.”
“What? They drove further into the city? That’s fucking crazy!”
“Yeah. But that’s what they came for. They picked them up— forced them to leave without anything— stole another car (from the neighbour) and left. Valery said he saw a bus full of troops pull up just as they turned the corner. If they didn’t switch cars, they might have been caught.”
“That’s not it. So they they’re on their way back and they burn through the LNR block post just fine— they had just demolished it— but now they have to go through the Ukrainian post.”
“So what— they’re Ukrainians.”
“Yeah, but they had no personal documents— theirs are in LNR possession and the parents’ docs were left behind.”
“Oh god, the parents.”
“And no documents for a car with Luhansk plates. Not to mention their accents. Oh and the automatic weapons in the trunk.”
“What a mess.”
“And on top of that, the Ukrainian soldiers are completely fucking blasted and ready to take some pent up aggression out.”
“They were drunk?”
“‘Completely fucking blasted’ were Valery’s words.”
“Wait, Valery served— couldn’t he drop some names and places he fought?”
“Completely. Fucking. Blasted. They got roughed up pretty good. The parents, too.”
“They must of been scared shitless.”
“Then they got handed shovels, told to get in the car. That they’re gonna drive into the fields to dig graves.”
“What? That’s stupid! So they just drove away then?”
“Are you kidding? You’re surrounded by drunks with automatic weapons. And you know there are block posts from here all the way to Kiev. And you’re in a car with Luhansk plates. Where the hell are you going to drive to?”
“So what, they just listened to them and drove to dig their own graves?”
“Yep. I guess they figured they’d have some time for them to sober up and to convince them they’re on the same side. But they never got that chance. Ten kilometres into the fields, the Ukrainian car— which had been following closely with a rifle out the passenger window— slams on the breaks, u-turns, and sweeps off in the same direction they came from.”
“Why do you keep asking so many questions? I dunno. I’m just telling you what he told me. Maybe they got some important call. Or maybe they were just being drunk and impulsive.”
“Ok, ok. So they drove away, I assume.”
“They drove away.”
“And no similar trouble at the next post?”
“Not that he told me about.”
“Yeah. So he’s living with us. Is on LNR wanted lists— they have his passport, remember?”
“Aren’t you worried?”
“No. What’s there to worry about? We don’t have anything left to steal!”
“To ste.. oh that’s right. The bank. Kyivska Rus, was it?”
“Yeah— Yatseniuk.” Marichka laughs, remembering that among the Prime Minister of Ukraine’s many condescending nicknames—including “Yajtse-njukh” (“Ball-sniffer”) and “Kulia-v-lob” (“Bullet-in-the-head”), the most common is simply “Krolik” (“Rabbit”) because he looks like the rabbit from the soviet-era Winnie the Pooh cartoons.
“What are you laughing about? He’s our fucking prime minister!” says Oksana, jokingly offended.
“I’m sorry— I just made the connection and remember the cartoon.” Marichka still can’t stop giggling. “And I remembered when the reporter gave him a carrot for good luck. Remember? On his presidential campaign?” Marichka is cracking up now— she can barely contain herself as she recalls the viral video. “And Rabbit leans in and tells him to stick it up his ass! And they caught it on video!”
“Yeah, I remember.” Oksana smiles but is not as amused by the memory as Marichka. “He’s the guy benefiting from Kyivska Rus bankrupting. It was his bank— at least it was a bank in his pocket.”
“Wait— how do you know?”
“You know Ukrainians— we can alway pay someone to dig up whatever you want on anyone.”
“That’s true. But wait, isn’t he the good one?”
“Good one?! There is no good one! They’re all fucked.”
“Everyone loves him in Canada— his english is really good.”
“Listen, we did our research. We found out. We still haven’t found out if there’s anyway we can get it back, but at least we know where it is.”
“Under the Rabbit’s ass.” This time Oksana laughs as she clears the empty plates and coffee cups from the dresser and steals a look at herself in the mirror. She brushes her long bangs behind her left ear and takes the dishes to the same sink she washed her hands in before, the flaccid rubber gloves still drip-drying over the edge.
Oh! How nicely our rabbit plays!
God bless him and give him health and happiness in his home!
When we leave, Oksana reminds Marichka one more time to rub her hair with macadamia nut oil, but only the ends, and advises her to dry her hair in the opposite direction to its growth to control the flow. “You get better bangs that way.”
Across the street, an old man has slipped on a patch of ice in front of the monument to Soviet soldiers. A group of head-scarfed ladies has congregated around him and can’t agree about whether it’s better for him to get up of stay down. Above the commotion, the stone-faced mother doesn’t flinch, forever focussed on her son who is himself frozen in the act of leaving.
Beside them, a political advertisement that I can read from the other side of the six lane highway. It’s in simple black block letters on a white background and faces the road so that even drivers can read it as they pass the imposing monument on their way home from work. It’s unclear who sponsored it, but the message is unambiguous:
RUN, RABBIT, RUN!