Alonya and Ivan

Elana Gomel

Story image for Alonya and Ivan by Elana Gomel

M y mother, grandmother, and aunt died at dawn. My father was already dead, killed at the Battle of Tarasovka, so I did not have to worry about burying him. But Ivan and I tried to dig the graves for the rest of them. Ivan was only six, so the shovel was almost as tall as he was, and I had to grab the handles to prevent it from twisting and hitting him on the head. Finally, I had enough.

“Go and bring some flowers, Vanya,” I told him. “We will put them on the graves.”

The spring came early this year, and the white daffodils and purple dream-herb were already gone. But lilac was just beginning to bloom, and both my mother and her sister, Aunt Oksana, had loved its sweet smell and clusters of star-shaped flowers. I knew that Ivan knew it, and counted on him to go to our neighbors’ deserted garden where a mature lilac was just beginning to bloom. He would have to cross the burnt-out place where Pavlik’s house had stood, walking through the ashes.

When he disappeared behind the hedge, I quickly pulled the three bodies into the empty barn and latched the door. They were just as much at peace as they would be in a hole in the ground; and it would give Ivan and me time to flee. The call would be back.

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W hen I woke up last night, Ivan was still huddled up under the blanket on the truckle-bed. Mama had told me he was growing up and that I should sleep with Aunt Oksana in the gornitza while she and Grandma shared the master bedroom, but I refused. I did not want to leave my baby brother alone at night. And as it turned out, I was right.

I heard it even before Mama burst through the door of the bedroom, towels wrapped around her head so it looked like a cabbage. A thin distant wailing, so monotonous it set my teeth on edge.

“To the cellar!” Mama screamed, shaking Ivan to wake him up.

I hated the cellar, with its sour smell of fermented cabbage and desiccated mice. Since electricity was gone, the cobwebbed bulb would be useless. But I got up and followed her as she carried Ivan down the stairs. He was already too heavy for her, but I knew she wanted to do it. She put him down, kissed him on the forehead, and turned to me.

“Take care of him,” she said, kissed me, and climbed up the ladder, pulling the heavy trapdoor down as she exited. The towels, unwound, fell down in her wake and lay on the floor like a shed snakeskin.

I shushed Ivan and sat by his side, holding his hand until he fell asleep again. I sat and waited for a long time until I decided the night was done, then I picked up Mama’s towels and made one of them into a bindle to hold important things, like some bread and sausage from the kitchen shelves. I did not know what time it was because all the clocks had stopped after the Oborotni came. Ivan did not even remember what clocks were for and thought the pot-bellied alarm painted with flowers on the dresser in the gornitza was an ornament. Our mother had tried to teach him letters and numbers from the same illustrated textbook I had used in first grade—when there was still school in the village—but he was not interested.

I added the book, tying it into the bindle. Even if my brother was resistant to learning, he liked the colorful pictures, with a red watermelon for A and a smiling cat for K.

I woke Ivan and we climbed up the ladder and raised the lid together. The sky outside was the color of the blue glass bottle my father had given me as a gift for my tenth birthday. I dropped it when I saw his death notice in the mail, and it shattered into sharp cutting fragments.

Mama, Grandma, and Aunt Oksana lay in the gornitza, before the red corner where the icons and the photographs of my father and grandfather in their uniforms were displayed. There was a lot of blood. My mother still clutched the kitchen knife which she had used to slit the throats of her mother and sister and then her own. I pried it out of her rigid fingers and washed it. I added it to the bindle.

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I van came back staggering under the load of broken off lilac branches, his blond hair peppered with mauve and purple florets. He must have denuded all the lilacs in the Sadkos’ garden. I wanted to tell him off, but what did it matter? So, I directed him to dump the flowers on the shallow indentation under the apple tree which I had filled in while he was away.

“This is for Mama, Grandma and Auntie,” I said. From his sideways glance I knew that he realized the bodies were not here, but he said nothing. We stood by the flower heap in silence, and I tried to say a prayer to Mother of God. But though we had a couple of icons in the gornitza, our family were not religious, and after the Oborotni and my father’s death Mama refused to go to church, so I did not know any prayers by heart. And anyway, some people in the village had prayed a lot, and it did not help either.

I took Ivan’s hand and we walked out of the village and toward the woods. It was a clear day, and the houses were surrounded by billows of pink and white cherry blossoms. The red tiled roofs gleamed, and the golden dome of the church shone in the blue sky. Apart from a couple of houses burned down in the first wave of the invasion, when people thought you could hold off the Call with fire or noise, it all looked untouched and peaceful. I felt a little regret leaving the village behind, but after all there was nobody alive there anymore. Or at least, nobody human.

“Alyonushka?” Ivan asked, after we crossed the dusty pathway that skirted the village leading to the main road where empty cars were piled up. “Where are we going?”

“To the forest,” I said.

“Will we live there?”

“Yes. The Call will be muted by the trees. And there are partisans in the greenwood. They’ll take us in.”

He nodded, satisfied. I did not know that there were any partisans there—it may have been just a fairy tale—but if we stayed in the village, we would be dead for sure.

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T he Call did not work on children below puberty. It could give you a bad headache—a thin piercing wailing like the buzz of a giant mosquito—but that was all. This was why children were often used by the army to attack enemy encampments called ricks with homemade incendiary devices. Most did not come back, but some ricks were destroyed. I hoped that if we did find partisans in the forest, they might train me for such a mission before it was too late.

I was only eight when we first heard the Call, and Ivan was a toddler. My father, whose face had faded from my memory, supplanted by the sepia picture in the red corner, went outside to listen. I woke up too and heard my mother’s voice. “A siren? Air-raid?”

Even to me it did not sound like an air-raid: no rising and falling tones. It just went on and on, drilling into my temples. Ivan woke up and started crying.

And then we saw the people. We still had streetlights at the time, and the night was shot with a harsh mercury glare. On the street outside, a straggling column of men and women in their nightgowns and pajamas walked by our house. No kids. I recognized Aunt Zhanna and Uncle Mikhailo, Pavlik’s parents.

My father ran outside, and I saw him trying to talk with the people, shaking them by the shoulder as if trying to wake them up. But they were not sleepwalking; their eyes were open, and I saw Uncle Mikhailo, a burly guy who had the reputation of picking fights, slap my father’s hand off. The column rounded the corner of the street and disappeared.

After a while the annoying buzz stopped. At the time, we did not know that the Call worked on people at different rates. But eventually it would get you, no matter how you held out. My family held out longer than most.

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A s Ivan and I followed a faint track that led deeper into the woods, I was thinking about the fact that I was twelve. My monthlies had not come yet, but they would soon. Mama had explained it all to me with the same clarity and precision she must have used in her former life as an administrator. Before the Oborotni, she had been the procurement officer for our village.

Oborotni liked open spaces—steppes, and cultivated fields, and town squares. Since communications across the Motherland had been interrupted when the Calls started sounding almost every night, we did not know what was happening in the Capital, but I hoped the Great Golden City still stood. The thick forests had always been seen as a possible shelter; thus came the rumors of the partisans hiding in the deepest greenwood as they had done so many times in the past. We had not seen any sign of a human habitation, but neither had we seen any sign of Oborotni.

The track petered out and Ivan and I found ourselves in a glade surrounded by larches and birch-trees. It was flooded with blue, covered by bluebells and forget-me-nots, so it looked like a lake. I saw Ivan smile and was grateful to the spring.

We sat down under a birch-tree whose sticky green leaves blazed in the sunlight like emeralds. I unwound my bindle and took out the food.

“Do you want to eat?” I asked my brother.

He nodded. He was gathering bluebells into an untidy bouquet. Ivan loved flowers and plants; Grandma called him “a gentle soul” and thought he would grow up to be a kobzar-player or a saint. I was the one getting into scuffles and leaving my friend Pavlik with a bloody nose. I regretted it on that day when Zhanna-turned-vixen went into her house and tore out her son’s throat with her sharp little teeth.

“Aren’t you hungry, Alyonushka?’ he asked, mouth full of bread and cured sausage.

I wasn’t, but to make him feel better I took a bite.

Ivan polished off his bread-and-sausage. “Water?” he asked.

My heart dropped. I had not thought of taking a water-flask with me. I did not know why; perhaps because it was cool in the morning; or because the streams of blood in the gornitza made my mind recoil from anything liquid. But here we were, in the woods, far from the village wells and water pumps, with nothing to drink. And the food was salty; I only had a tiny bit, and I was already growing thirsty.

I got up and took Ivan’s hand. “Let’s go,” I said. “We will find water soon.”

But we did not.

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T hat first night after we heard the Call, we just went back to sleep. Aunt Oksana did not live with us at the time because her husband, Uncle Volodymyr, was still alive, and so was my cousin Alicia. It was before her father killed her.

Next morning, the stragglers started to return.

I remembered seeing the first one. I was curious and slipped out of the house while Mama was cooking buckwheat for breakfast. Aunt Zhanna, Pavlik’s mother, was staggering down in the middle of the street as if drunk, which was not unheard of. I snickered.

And then I saw her face.

Under her pinned-up braids, her face was elongated and misshapen like a vixen’s snout, sprinkled with mangy reddish fur. Her eyes had migrated to the sides of her head. One was round and dull like a pebble, the second tiny and gimlet-like, glittering with anger. And yet, she was still, unmistakably, herself. It was not a vixen’s head on Aunt Zhanna’s shoulders. It was Aunt Zhanna kneaded and melded into a foxlike creature that opened its stinking mouth lined with needle teeth and yapped its rage at the world.

My father came out when I screamed, and other adults, those who had not been lured by the Call, did too. Zhanna-fox was tied up. But then more of the last night’s crop came back.

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W e went deeper and deeper into the woods. The green glow curdled into a sullen dusk. The trees changed from slender birches to stout oaks. New grass and budding flowers gave way to deadfall. And still, we saw no pool, pond, or creek.

Ivan was licking his lips repeatedly until I told him to stop. They were so chapped they were beginning to bleed. Wilted bluebells dropped out of his hand, marking our way. Their watery blue teased me with memories of rain. My own mouth felt furry and stale.

To distract Ivan, I suggested we sit down and rest. I took out the alphabet textbook and showed him the pictures.

“A,” I said, pointing to the watermelon. “Arbuz.”

“Water,” he whispered.

I told him to stay in place and I would scout around, looking for a creek or a marsh. The truth was, I just wanted to escape his pleading eyes. Take care of him, Mama had said.

I walked a little way into a thicket of gnarled pines, the ground covered with dry needles like an old woman’s hair. Grandma’s hair had been that color, dull silver.

The ground was sloping downward, and I followed the incline when suddenly I heard a loud rustling behind my back. I whirled around, my heart pounding—and confronted Ivan.

“Don’t want to stay alone,” he pouted, and I was so relieved I did not have the heart to chide him. We went on together.

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T he worst thing about Oborotni was that they sought no profit. Motherland had suffered enough invasions, wars, and conquests to make the list in my history textbook several pages long. But in every case, the invaders had some goal in mind: gold; slaves; land; glory. They could be negotiated with, or suffered in silence until the people gathered enough strength to rebel. But whatever the Oborotni were, wherever they came from, all they wanted was degradation and death. Towns overrun by animals pretending to be human and humans degraded into animals. They killed our people and turned the rest into mindless chunks of meat inside their churning bodies.

We knew what they looked like because we saw them later, striding across our land as if it belonged to them. I saw one myself. A thing as tall as the tallest apartment building in the market-town and so heavy the earth shook under its tread. You could still see the seams in its wormy flesh where all the people who went into its making were joined together, braided, and stitched into an approximation of an obese giant. And its head was made of the kaleidoscope of distorted animal faces, rotating in and out of the blackness at the core of it. Its shovel-like hand reached down and swiped the thatched roof off a cottage, and each finger was a man, squirming and flapping the stumps of his torn-off arms.

I heard stories about ricks where Oborotni lay in untidy heaps of flesh, human and animal, blending and separating and blending even tighter, a hill of seething monstrosity. The army had tried to set fire to ricks, and some had burned. But you could not kill an Oboroten because it was one-in-many or maybe many-in-one, and one death was too little for it. And every night, a call was heard in every town, village, and city of our Motherland and more people left, to come back as beasts, or maybe not to come back at all.

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I t was getting chilly in this somber grove, but still we walked, until—as I shivered in the dank shade—I heard something. A tiny sloshing sound.

I ran, almost tripping on the arching roots, and stopped when I saw a dark gleam ahead.

It was a small black pond, hardly bigger than a puddle, but it seemed deep. Its placid surface was covered with twigs and pine-needles. I looked around for what made a sloshing sound—a branch falling in?—but could not see anything.

Ivan gave a triumphant shout when he saw the pond and rushed toward it. I grabbed his arm, putting my hand against his mouth. It was not only that I was wary of making noise in this hushed wood. There was something about the pond that gave me pause, even though my parched mouth was screaming for its cooling touch. Bidding Ivan to stand still, I approached the pond and examined the water-margins. There were no reeds, no algae, no water-bugs. It was as if all life avoided it. And yet the water under the twigs seemed to be crystal-clear.

And then I saw it. At first the pond had appeared to be round: just a deep waterhole. But now, from close up, I realized it was not. It was in the shape of a giant splayed foot, big enough for ten human soles to have been used in its making. An Oboroten had stomped deep into the sacred soil of Motherland, leaving its imprint behind.

I took a deep breath and looked at Ivan. “We can’t drink it,” I said. “It’s poison.”

I could not face the tears gathering in his eyes, crawling down his cheeks, stealing the precious moisture from his tiny body.

I turned away. Just for a moment, but it was all it took.

Ivan rushed past me, dropped to his knees, and lapped at the pond like an animal. And I thought, He is just a baby, years from puberty, he is safe… reassurance for a couple of heartbeats. But when my brother rose to his feet, water dripping off him, I knew any hope was futile.

His face was running down the armature of his bones like pancake batter, bubbling and viscous. His small frame was filling out in strange places, rising and falling in random bubbles of flesh. The shirt ripped and sloughed off as my brother’s smooth skin erupted in a sprinkling of unclean brown fur. His eyes sunk deep into the elongated, drooping muzzle that was forming out of the remnants of what used to be Ivan. Paws snagging on the sleeves our grandmother had lovingly cross-stitched with traditional black-and-red patterns. A little bearlike creature roared at me, the wet rag of its tongue hanging out from its maw where tiny milk teeth were being pushed out by the growing fangs. They rained upon the ground like pearls.

Without thought, almost without volition, I lunged at the Oboroten, my mother’s knife clutched in my hand.

He swiped at me, but he was still caught in transition, his claws soft and weak, a child’s fingers visible inside the bony sheaths. Our father had taught me how to kill a chicken when the food supplies started running low. One stroke under the bristly jaw, and it was done.

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I van lay on the ground. The change had not reversed as he was dying. I searched the beastly muzzle for my brother’s face and was relieved to find little. He had only gurgled something; maybe it was my name.

I sat by him for a long time. I wanted to bury him, but there was no way I could do it. We had not buried our family; maybe this was the punishment. Or maybe it was as random as the Oborotni themselves: a mindless destruction sweeping our land. Because they wanted nothing from us but our deaths. They were not conquerors. They were beasts. And beasts need to be killed.

I dragged some branches over the body that was not my brother’s. And then I walked deeper into the green maw of the forests, in search of partisans.

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Elana Gomel

Author image of Elana Gomel Elana Gomel is an academic and an award-winning writer. Born in Ukraine, she has lived and taught in many countries, including the US, Israel, Italy, and Hong Kong. She is the author of six non-fiction books and numerous articles on subjects such as narrative theory, posthumanism, science fiction, and serial killers. As a fiction writer, she has published more than a hundred fantasy and science fiction stories, several novellas, and four novels. She is a member of HWA and can be found at www.citiesoflightanddarkness.com, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

© Elana Gomel 2022 All Rights Reserved

The title picture was created by incorporating detail from a Creative Commons image by qumono into an original image by lighthouse at depositphotos.com - many thanks!

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