By Maryna Bandarenka
Translation: Will Firth


Katya ended the call and slid down the wall to the floor. Her legs couldn’t hold her. The suppressed, all-consuming horror that had dwelt in her heart for the past year now flooded her body.

“I’m going in the clink tomorrow.”

A cat’s nose nudged her in the side demandingly. Katya raised her hand with difficulty and sank her fingers into its furry coat.

“My good Bickie.”

The tom purred like a little motor, and her ability to think gradually returned. She needed advice. She picked up her mobile phone from the floor.

“Uncle Seryozha, this is Katya. I’ve got problems … Yes, I’ll come.”

Although it was the middle of the working day, the traffic was dense. The taxi crawled from one congested junction to another. Katya mechanically scrolled the media channels. Professional deformation, her mother called it. Arrests, searches. Searches, arrests. And, like the finale of an ugly play, long prison terms. Five, seven, ten, fifteen years.

The taxi jerked to a halt. Another jam. She looked out the window. The bridge. Her stomach twisted into a tight knot and her throat was dry. On this bridge, a year earlier, she, homely Katya, and the editorial staff had come under stun-grenade fire. It was her first assignment in the field.

She inhaled deeply, exhaled slowly. The driver glanced in the rear-view mirror but said nothing. It was better that way. This was not the time and place for chatting with a stranger. Even if he did have the same media channels open on the dashboard of his phone.

Uncle Sergei’s office lay in a quiet part of the city centre, in a pre-war building. Her uncle was waiting for her on the bench. In his invariable three-piece suit, he looked like a mossy boulder with a bald patch gleaming in the sun.

“What a wonderful day. Shall we go for a stroll?” he asked, getting up.

They walked for a while in silence, with only his walking stick tapping on the pavement.

“I’ve been summoned to an interview. Tomorrow at eight,” she said almost calmly.

“A proper written summons?”

“No,” she shook her head, and red ringlets of hair brushed against her neck.

“What if I just don’t go? I’m a no-name. Why would they need me?”

“Then they’ll come for you. Journalists in jail? Sure thing!” Uncle Sergei stopped and leaned on his stick. He looked her in the eyes. “Katyusha, to them you’re a participant in the protests, at the very least, and perhaps even a criminal suspect. Did your colleague – whatshisname – respond to the summons?”

Katya winced. Yes, he did. And a video surfaced with poor battered Vanya confessing, in a slurred voice, that he regretted coordinating the protests.

“Your mum has a heart condition. Have you thought what it would be like for her to attend your trial? Plus, there are no independent lawyers to be found now.”

“How do you manage, then?”

“Katyusha, I’m too old to lose my licence. And if I end up in their ‘pre-trial detention’ dungeon I simply won’t survive.”

For a few moments, neither of them spoke. Fallen leaves rustled underfoot. The street cleaners had not got round to them because they were busy scrubbing the city centre day and night, making it sterile.

“I need to take off.”

“You do. I’ve been talking sense to you for a long time, and you were all ‘my duty, my friends, the cause’,” he said, taking out his phone. “I’ll give you the number of someone who’ll help. Take only as much as you can carry. And please don’t delay. You should be gone by tomorrow.”

Katya nodded.

“Good, then,” Uncle Sergei squinted at the sun. “It’s a troubled October this year, but so beautiful.”

The city blazed in yellow-crimson flame. The parks and squares, boulevards and quiet courtyards of residential blocks were aglow. The wind skittered along the broad avenues and danced with the fallen leaves in the vast, deserted Soviet spaces. A city for propaganda postcards. A showcase.

She texted with the helper in the taxi home. They arranged to meet at a petrol station on the outskirts of the city. She had three hours left. Next to nothing.

Katya looked around and darted to the entrance of her building. There was the small flat she had inherited from her grandmother. Just a year before, Katya had renovated it. What to take with her? How to fit her whole life in a rucksack? Her laptop, passport, money, driver’s licence and new panda socks. The framed photo? She hesitated, but then shoved it into her rucksack after all: her young parents and a small her. Happy. With her father still alive.

The front-door lock clicked.

“Katyusha, it’s me!” she heard from the corridor. “I was coming back from Aunt Natasha’s and thought I’d look in on you. She has new patterns, they’re lovely! I’ll sew you a suit for work, otherwise you’ll be in jeans forever.”

Her mother, short and delicate, a former ballerina, did not abandon her attempts to smarten Katya up or tame her shock of disobedient red curls.

“Don’t slouch, you’re a girl!” she would pull up Katya the teenager, when she was as tall as an adult but still as ungainly as a child.

“Journalism is not for girls,” she would nag at Katya the high-school graduate.

Katya buttoned her lip and did her own thing. In her stubbornness, as well as her height and red hair, she took after her father, a respected surgeon, who was consumed by pneumonia ten years before.

Her mother looked into the room.

“Katya, are you going somewhere?”

The room, in which everything usually had its place, looked as if a hurricane had passed through. A jumble of clothes and documents lay scattered over the couch and floor, and a pile of multicoloured socks looked out of a drawer.

“To visit friends,” Katya answered without raising her head. It came out harsher than she wanted. She was sitting on the floor and trying to do up her tightly packed rucksack. The zip resisted, and she got angry. Her one large rucksack tearing was the last thing she needed.

“Katerina, you’re no good at lying. Where are you going?”

The zip finally yielded and held the edges of the taut fabric together.

“Do you really want to know?” Katya raised her head and looked at her mother.

“I am your mother.”

“Mum, you don’t want to get into this.”

“Katya, what’s going on?” And then after a pause: “Does Sergei know?”

Katya nodded briefly. Her mother slumped onto the couch.

“I knew it would be like this. I always knew. Why did you have to go into journalism?”

“Mum … Mummy,” Katya shuffled up to her on her knees, squeezed her icy fingers and looked into her eyes. “Don’t. Please. I’ll be fine.”

“Katyusha …”

“Mummy, please look after Biscuit. I have to go.”

She got up, lifted her rucksack with effort and headed for the hall. Her mother followed. Katya froze as she held the handle of the front door.

“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door,” she muttered.


She looked back. Her mother, so dear and forlorn, stood in the middle of the hall, her hands pressed to her chest. So small, so dear. Biscuit sat at her feet. She wanted to hug her mother and hold her tight, but then she, Katya, would simply not be able to leave.

“I love you, Mum,” Katya whispered.

She pushed the door open and went out, a burning in her chest.

The yard was immersed in twilight. The wind quickly dried her tears. At a cashpoint she withdrew all the money from her account and shoved it into the inner pocket of her jacket. The city she loved so much, where she spent her childhood – that city had become an enemy. But now, in the end, she wanted to inhale as much of it as she could.

She arrived a little early. Her escort, a grey fellow of indeterminate age, was there and waiting. The car matched its owner well.

They were silent the whole way. A chanson sounded from the cassette player. Katya was very tired from the day but could not sleep. Just the day before, she had been thinking what to wear to her friends’ wedding, and on Saturday she was going to go for coffee with the girls. Her winter coat was still at the dry cleaners. She had not ordered food for the cat. All that remained of a normal life collapsed like a rickety old fence. She was leaving behind her beloved flat, her mother, Uncle Seryozha and Biscuit.

First, they drove along the highway, then down country roads. Forests and fields alternated. Potholes made the car bounce and sway. At one point, the driver switched off the headlights.

Suddenly the car stopped beside the next bare field.

“Cut straight across the field, then you go through the coppice until you reach the river. Make to the left, and near the broken birch there’s a ford,” the driver said.

“Ford?” her voice creaked after the long silence.

“It’ll be knee-deep. Cross the river and surrender to the border guards. Apply for political asylum.”

“You’re not coming with me?”

“No. I’ve brought you this far. You’re on your own for the last bit.”

“How much do I owe you?” Katya reached into the pocket of her jacket with the cash.

“Nothing. It’s all been paid for. Good luck.”

Thank you, Uncle Seryozha.

Her training shoes sank up to the ankles in the rich, ploughed earth. It seemed to know that another daughter was leaving it. Slowly but surely the wood drew nearer.

The black ribbon of the river could now be glimpsed between the trees. Just a little further and she would be in the other country, out of reach.


The shout paralysed her. She froze on the spot. A dark figure with a submachine gun emerged from between the trees. That’s done it! The thought flashed through her mind, only to founder in her growing panic.

“What are you doing here?” asked the man, who was wearing camouflage.

She looked helplessly at the river.

“Are you lost?” he asked politely, then added with a smile: “On the run?”

She nodded. The lump in her throat stopped her from speaking.

“Follow me.”

He turned round and headed for the trees. Katya wandered after him as if in a dream, hardly able to lift her legs. How long they walked along the river like that, she did not know. All of a sudden, Mr Camouflage stopped.

“You can cross. It’s shallowest here.”


“To the other side,” he prompted.

“Thank you,” Katya whispered.

“Consider I didn’t see you.”

Katya came to her senses on the other side of the river. Her wet jeans were clinging to her legs and water squelched in her trainers. She looked back. The bank beyond the river was a wide daub of black against the inky sky propped up by the treetops. Black on black. One day the sun would rise there too.