Requiem for a cracked birch

This is a short story by Ilya Kharkow, a writer from Ukraine. You can find more of Ilyas work on his website here.

Trigger warning: This story mentions war, suicide, and sexual assault.

I decided to buy grey clothes, after the words of a Polish guy. This was our third meeting, and at the very beginning of it, he was surprised at the lack of news from my side. Then I asked him why this surprised him, and his answer surprised me. “It’s you who lives the crazy life of an immigrant.” It was then that I realised that while I was watching those around me in search of a plot for a new story, those around me were also watching. This thought prompted me to buy grey nondescript clothes. In this way, I wanted to acquire additional anonymity.

My choice fell on LEVIS. After spending an hour in the store, I came out satisfied with new clothes. Grey hoodie. Blue jeans. The simplicity of clothing promised me a loss of attention from strangers. I willingly accepted promises from clothes to remain incognito exactly until I noticed someone’s feature that could turn into the first paragraph of a story. But the story was not written, and because of the success of the desire to merge with the walls, not only waiters but also consultants in stores began to ignore me.

I planned to go to Warsaw and get from there to Berlin. I made a list of friends I wanted to visit there. I perceived my friends, scattered across Europe as breadcrumbs, as a guide. Each such friend was a point on the route, which the devil knows who made for me. And I willingly followed this route. Movement is not only hygiene for the mind but also a generator of thoughts. And if it happens that people do not give me plots, I turn to the road. But this time I was so tired that I returned the tickets, bought a blanket, milk, and honey, and decided to spend a few days at home without going anywhere.

My new clothes were in the closet. I deliberately did not close the closet door so that periodically the clothes caught my eye. During the war, I only got rid of things, now I finally bought something new. Looking at the grey hoodie and blue jeans, I wanted to see myself updated, but I saw only clothes. Two things. 120 zlotys for a jacket and 430 zlotys for jeans. Saw the price tag instead of the style. Saw the dust on the shelf and the shelf, but not a new image. And that gave me dissatisfaction.

After moving abroad, I talked about moving as an opportunity to get rid of what weighed on me. Everything around me was new to me. Not a single cafe, not a single building was knocked up with memories or associations. Everyone just had to make contact. The outcome of the contact depended only on me. It was inspiring. New language. Unfamiliar culture. Currency. I did not need to withdraw money from the card. But I wanted to use cash. I wanted to hold unfamiliar banknotes in my hands. Euro. Crowns. Zloty. The coins given to me as change were ugly in my pockets, but even that I liked.

Just three months later, I’m lazily heating milk, devoid of any desire to interact with the world around me. Here’s emigration as an opportunity. I add two huge spoons of honey. I bought new clothes, but I walk around the apartment naked, and I wrap my naked body in a blanket more willingly than in those same jeans, and that same hoodie. The seller said that the blanket was made of sheep’s wool. Passing by the mirror, I pretend to be a sheep. Then a wolf. Could I become a wolf? No one will see me for the next couple of days. I will not entertain anyone with the stories of an immigrant living a crazy life. Don’t want to.

Suddenly I received a message from the same Polish acquaintance. He writes something about Ukraine. It is noteworthy that he writes the word “Ukraine” with an error. Here it is, the level of involvement of the average European in the war. And this is Poland! If you go deep into Europe, for example, to France, where the locals did not suffer from the embodiment of socialist ideas, then their carelessness can even offend a Ukrainian who instinctively runs to a wall, fence, or car when he hears the sounds of fireworks.

No, to hell with the sheep. And faceless clothes to hell. I am more than a Ukrainian. I am human. As long as my “I” is greater than my nationality, I feel safe. But this “I” still needed to be nurtured. Some of my acquaintances confuse “I” with selfishness. These same guys did not cultivate the same in themselves, and therefore the government hung over them like a cutesy inquisitor. Even the shadow of a bloodthirsty scoundrel frightens the guys with a small “I”, and they all measure the size of the penis, not noticing how crimes turn into heroism, and heroes into social benefits, orders, crosses, and graves without fences. But it’s you, somehow. I’ll take care of other games.

I don’t remember what made me leave the house that day. But still, something made me. And here I find myself in an expensive store. Obscenely expensive. 900 zlotys for a sweater with a tight collar. The amount of monthly social payments to migrants in Ukraine is three times less. In my hands are four knitted black sweaters. In my hands are classic dark grey trousers.

A young consultant compliments me in Polish. I have no idea what she is saying. The important thing is that having expressed the thought, she wanted to touch me. She touched my wrist with her hand. The rational part of me craved dullness and anonymity, while the impulsiveness gravitated towards the haughtiness of a coarse knit sweater, the pretentiousness of a black belt with a grey buckle that riveted attention. The buckle is a steel cart stained with ore, the sweat of young miners, their saliva and hopes. I could have become a miner. This is the future my parents predicted for me. But the Faculty of Philology saved me, and now I am imposingly approaching the ticket office in his honour.


Was a sheep and became a snob. This is what the mirror told me when I looked at myself in the reflection in the evening. Now I can go to the Radio Opera in Katowice and not feel humiliated. Now I can afford to enjoy wine at the buffets in honour of the opening of exhibitions, and not feel like a vagabond accepting a handout from the palm of a bank owner who has exhibited a collection of art objects. Now I can rudely tell my Polish friend not to send me news from Ukraine, knowing that my pretentiousness will make him swallow the insult of sudden rudeness. The Pole will stay with me because a knitted sweater for 900 zlotys smells of independence of views, the sweetness of plans, the riot of life and at the same time the stagnant water of the desire for change and the thirst for relaxation. Independence must be fought for, but sometimes it can be bought.

“But why don’t you want to receive news from Ukraine?” Now the Pole is surprised by it.

“The war has begun. I wanted to go to a safe place. My country said that I wasn’t allowed to do this. And I ran away. Moved to Poland. But then my country said that they would get me in Poland and bring me back. It said that it’d be the case with every male Ukrainian here. Released the law. I was afraid of the news. Enough. Even in Poland, you have to build an escape plan.”

“And what are you planning next?”

“Further? I’ll go to Spain. They’ll help me with the paperwork. But if my country shows up in Spain too, if it tries to bite me there too… That’s what exes do when they’re broken up. But if in love you choose whom to kiss, then I didn’t choose the country. Therefore, the responsibility here is of a different kind.”

“Have you heard that the Ukrainian embassies will now function as military registration offices?”

“Enough news, please stop!”


The next morning, I go to a cafe for breakfast, only to show myself in public in my new clothes. The mirror saw me impersonal. The mirror saw me as both a sheep and a wolf. She saw me without clothes and without a mood. Now, for some reason, it sees a mourning person in front of it. I reach for my backpack, but something inside resists. How will I carry the coffin if a backpack hangs on my shoulder? Uncomfortable.

That night I dreamed about the commander. He probably had a more interesting title, but, fortunately, I don’t understand titles. So, he yelled at the soldiers. He said that they must dig something. Right here. And if they do not want to, then he will imprison them, as he has already imprisoned six others. Now, for disobeying the commander, they can hide behind bars. Also, for desertion. The amnesty for such cases was cancelled, as was the suspended sentence. Only prison or obedience. And then one of the soldiers says that it is better not to dig here, but there. Then it will be safer and more useful. The enemy will not expect an ambush from that side. And the savvy soldier gets a fist in the face from the commander. The commander spits in his face, and a second punch smears saliva on his face. And then the commander screams and demands that they give him a machine gun. He says he’ll shoot the brat if he refuses to dig here. Laughs. Screaming. Fights. With such a commander, there is no need for enemies. It was only when I reached the cafe that I realised that it was not a dream, it was a video from the front line, which I watched before going to bed.

I eat Polish food. Food prepared in Poland by Poles. Traditions. Lots of tomatoes. Black pepper. I don’t know what this dish is called. But I know that in Poland they love fruit soups. Of course, borscht is also prepared in Poland, only here it is different. Upon learning that I was from Ukraine, the waiter offered me to try their borscht, but I refused. I thought that red borscht would be associated with blood. Yes, the war has reached my kitchen. He jabbed his finger at the longest name on the menu. And now I eat something spicy with the addition of tomatoes. And yes, crushed tomatoes resemble blood, war, and the cry of a commander whom no one will punish because war justifies crimes much more heinous than shouting and threats.

Funeral morning. Mourning me. Mourning street stretched out like a coffin. I roll along the very edge of an elongated coffin. I fly by with a small speck of dust. It takes me nowhere. In the concrete and stone of the Polish doorways. In the indifference of other people’s eyes, I am grateful that their indifference does not require anything from me, including sacrificing myself as a victim of an ugly war.

Walking along the streets of Kyiv or Kharkiv, along the streets of the Dniepr or Zaporizhia, meeting indifference is a great success. The eyes on the streets of Ukraine have been pinning hope on any passer-by for a whole year now. Ukrainian eyes seek protection, attacking and demanding. Ukrainian eyes defend their boundaries, mastering the boundlessness of death and horror hidden behind the news feed and frightening headlines. Journalists so deftly formulate what you don’t even want to think about, that you believe any wording, if only it sounds and then disappears. “CHILD RAPED WITH A TEASPOON” is what the headlines say.

Eyes roll. The eyes rent themselves out to horror, terror, and anger. Eyes turn into arrows and fly to unprotected five-story buildings. Eyes turn into hands, and these hands push men to the frontline, and women and children to the near abroad. Eyes rush to power, and see if there will be corruption or support? Eyes multiply, swarm, protrude. The eyes swell, expand, increase. The ubiquitous Ukrainian eyes do not blink. They expect victory. Viewed. Missed this one too…

“I worked at the school for a year, and I realised that this was not my thing. That you need to earn money”, Agatha texts to me. We went to university together. “And yesterday I found out the terrible news… Do you remember Ignat Andreev? In short, he died…”

“Damn… how did he die? Has he really gone to fight?”, I answer, and I hear the lid of the coffin slam shut. I again feel the touch of a girl from an expensive store on my wrist. She is the harbinger of death. Checks my pulse. Her compliment was a warning. Now I see everything in a different light. My clothes are a mourning suit. Ukraine lagged behind me, but only because I was temporarily booked by death. That’s what my bloody and overly spicy breakfast was for. He died. Now I need to sing about him in a way that he could not sing. Otherwise, the coffin won’t open, and I won’t get out.


Higher education in Ukraine in most cases does not matter. Graduates of the Faculty of Law work as sushi masters and taxi drivers. Guys with a degree in economics get jobs in travel agencies, build their own businesses, and sometimes even get jobs as bookmakers. There are exceptions when a lawyer becomes a lawyer, and a teacher becomes a teacher. Ignat Andreev was such an exception.

The Faculty of Philology is the best thing that can happen to a teenager who is passionate about the search for the meaning of life. I was that kind of teenager. I searched for the meaning of life in books. I believed that someone had already found it and described the path to it in one of the books. The task was to find that very book among the many already existing ones. That is why I was a student. Ignat was a teacher. A teacher in perspective. The meaning of life did not interest him. He enrolled in philology to become a teacher of Russian and English. And also, literature. There was no doubt that he would become one. Just as there was no doubt that my search for the meaning of life would lead me anywhere but to the teacher’s office. And so, it happened.

Seeing Ignat for the first time, I immediately noted that we had nothing in common. If I didn’t care about grades, then he was ready for anything to maintain high academic performance. At the time when my friends and I were reading Sergey Yesenin’s ‘Black Man’ to each other, he preferred his poems about birch trees and a red cow. At first, I thought that he played along with the teachers who read poems about birches to us, knowing that we would prefer to read hooligan poems. Ignat spoke about birch trees with such artificial tenderness that I lost interest in him forever and practically made no attempts to get closer.

I smoked. Read alternative prose. Listened to rock. I skipped lectures to read books in the library. I was looking for why they could ban “The Catcher in the Rye”. Ripped out all the erotic scenes from library books to re-read before going to bed instead of watching porn. I got drunk at poetry parties, fought at punk concerts, and then kissed those whose faces were touched by a fist. I dyed my hair and pierced my ears with a needle. I argued with teachers and then praised contemporary authors with them. At the same time, Ignat studied diligently.

Blonde hair. Eyebrows are a thatched roof protecting the clear eyes of a country boy. Ignat did not care about the subtle worlds of boring writers. He taught languages. Grammar rules are his poetry. What did Tsvetaeva write about? Boredom. The conjugation of verbs in his explanation turned into a poem. But his too-sharp chin spoiled everything. One detail, seemingly insignificant, but excessively attracting attention. However, he didn’t care about looks either. Light, as if burnt out in the sun, Ignat was a man of profession. While we all pretended to be connoisseurs of high poetry, only Ignat claimed that he wanted to return to his native village to teach at the local school. However, even the teachers did not take his desire seriously.

The reason for distrusting Ignat would become obvious if you had a chance to watch him for five minutes. Like most village boys, Ignat was strong and well-developed physically. But among all the others, he was distinguished by a certain femininity in behaviour. Too smooth movements. Compliance. If you saw how he blinked, then you would immediately remember not James Dean, but Marilyn Monroe. He was flirting, seemingly without noticing it. He acted as if he wanted to seduce the interlocutor, regardless of whether he was talking with a teacher or with a stationer in the lobby.

I was almost certain that Ignat was gay. And I was sure that he did not even know about my orientation. The more I want a guy to pay attention to me, the more defiant I behave. Ignat was repulsed by my behaviour. I looked like a blob against his background. It was also a solemn sheet with a coat of arms and a seal. I was irritated by our dissimilarity. Therefore, we personified the two opposite poles of the battery, which gave energy to lectures. So, we studied Russian, English and literature.


Natalya Osip wrote that she was surprised by his death. She wrote that she thought he was a coward. They sat side by side during lectures. Once, she tried to kiss him. And he blushed. He said that he was ill and did not appear at the university for a week.


Why did he like Yesenin’s poems about birches? I would think he just didn’t read the other poems, but he did. Moreover, each of us went to the blackboard and read a verse, memorised. I have read ‘Letter to a Woman’. Natalya Osipova read ‘Life is a deceit with an enchanting melancholy’. Ignat read a poem about a white birch. Then I went back to the blackboard. I read ‘Shagane’. Didn’t touch. I read ‘Sing, Sing on the Damn Guitar’. Read about the brothel. About love for women and alcohol. About taverns and gateways. But Ignat’s response was found only by a verse about a birch.

Then we had a long discussion about Yesenin’s death. Did he kill himself or was he forced to do it? The poet was found hanged with his veins cut. They say he could have been killed and then initiated suicide. On the Internet, you can find his posthumous photograph. And we found it. Studied it. They were arguing about something. I do not remember which version I defended. I remember how Ignat said that a person who wrote so beautifully about birches could not voluntarily die. But he said this in a voice uncharacteristic of any argument. As if he was comforting a dying man, lying about the fact that he would survive when the facts said otherwise. If I could choose with whom to be in the trenches, then I would choose Ignat. Because of his rustic strength would choose. Because of the timbre of his soothing voice.


Anastasia Sviridova was also surprised by his death. “Did he volunteer to go to war?” she wrote.


A too-sharp chin is not the whole drawback of Ignat, but only its visible part. An overbite was what exacerbated the sharpness of his chin. Sometimes you talk to him, and you look at his mouth, like the mouth of the Nutcracker. You ask questions not for the sake of answers, but for the sake of the guy continuing to talk, and you would watch and imagine how his mouth, with an overbite, cracks the hard shell of nuts one by one. In sequence.

In lectures on literature, we discussed what makes a person free. Discussed what is the purpose of literature in principle. Who is a person and why is it so difficult for us to formulate it? Anastasia Sviridova, who wrote erotic poems in chequered notebooks, suddenly stood up and declared that she was the goal of modern literature. Everyone laughed except Ignat. I can’t tell why he held back his laughter out of politeness or because he didn’t understand Anastasia’s insolence. All of it existed somewhere on the verge between excessive kindness and stupidity. His innocence gave him attractiveness, which certainly helped him get good grades. The teachers were proud of him. Even the university nurse was proud of him. Adults were imbued with amazing sympathy for the guy. They saw something in him that they saw in themselves. Outdated. Abandoned attempt to chase trends and success. There is nowhere even obsolete. That’s what they saw in the burned-out guy. I watched him from the back desk and thought about how to show him that I like guys too.


Grigory Burchak asked for the number of the brigade in which Ignat served. He wrote that he had connections among the military leadership. Knowing the number of the brigade, he will be able to find out the details of his death.


We had fencing lessons twice a week. And in winter, for exactly one month a year, fencing lessons were replaced by swimming lessons. But the pool had to go to the other end of the city. Therefore, classes were planned for the evening. Nobody wanted to travel that far. I was the only one who gladly went to the pool, although I practically did not know how to swim.

But once in the locker room, I met with Ignat. I thought this was my chance. A chance to show him that I like guys too. I was ready to forgive him for the sharpness of his chin. I was ready to forgive him that in Yesenin he sees not a bully, but a lover of birches. I’m tired of looking for the meaning of life. Drowning yourself in a pool full of people is easier than looking for the meaning of life at twenty. But his voice is a bulletproof vest for the nervous system. I wanted to try it on.

Somehow it happened that I got into the shower room when Ignat had already jumped into the pool. Here is the goat. I followed him. The muscles of the chest stand out. The back is also decorated with muscles. Its entire body is covered with tiny white hairs. Burnt out country boy. It must have been difficult for him to hide his preferences in the village. But now he is a resident of a big city. Before the start of the war, there were still about ten years. We can enjoy life and not feel guilty about it. We can do anything. But instead, we silently float forward. Silently we swim back. He doesn’t even look in my direction. And I’m watching. Imperceptibly.


Marina and Luda sent the same pictures in response to the message about the death of Ignat. Black background. Burning candle in the centre. This picture is one of the first results in Google for the search term “condolences”.


In the shower we washed, standing opposite each other. I poured half a can of shampoo over myself. The whole shower was filled with foam, and I still could not wash it off my body. Due to the large amount of foam, I did not feel naked. The foam turned into a tight jumpsuit, spread over the body and over the tiles, slowly creeping into the drain hole.

Ignat bashfully rubbed his feet with a washcloth. I saw that he sometimes looks at me, but he does it as if by chance. He stood with his back to me. And I was spinning like a ballerina. But soon I got bored. I dropped the shampoo on purpose. And then I came so close to him that he got scared and pushed me away. I already mentioned that Ignat was a pretty strong guy. I fell to the floor. Then he came up to me. He extended his hand. I woke up. But as he helped me up, I noticed his erection. Ignat was embarrassed and quickly left the shower room. When I entered the locker room, he was no longer there.


Agatha surprised me with the news of Ignat’s death this morning. But now she surprises me for the second time. She texts that he did not go to war. She texts that he hanged himself in his own house.


On Monday, Ignat stops      me at the entrance to the university. He threatens me. He says that if I talk about what happened in the swimming lesson, he will accuse me of cheating. Recently, I got good marks for an exam in ancient Greek literature. This surprised everyone because I missed most of the lectures. And so, Ignat says that he will go to the dean’s office with the details. He says that he will tell me how I made him prompt in exams. How I manipulated him. How I’ve been blackmailing him for the last few months. And beat.

I am surprised. I just saw his erection. Is he really so ashamed of this that he is ready to decide on all these lies? His tone convinces me that this is extremely important to him.

“Okay, let’s keep it our secret. Let it be. But for that, you’ll help me for real”, I say to Ignat.

“How can I help? Exams are over.”

I didn’t even know what kind of help I was asking for.  But for some reason, it was important for me not only to agree to his terms but to accept mine too.

Ignat agrees. So, we have a common secret – his erection. Returning home in the evening on the subway, I read how Henry Miller fucked another woman of dubious origin. The innocence of Ignat’s anger is forgotten so easily as if it did not exist at all.


“I wanted to offer to chip in for the funeral. But I’m not sure that suicides are buried. And if they are not buried, then what are they doing with them?”, wrote Olya Likhacheva, who has never been distinguished by intelligence.


We decided to celebrate the end of the session. We were about to go to a restaurant. Several tables were specially connected there for us. We drank alcohol. They told each other funny stories. Boasting tricks that helped us cheat in exams. Everyone rejoiced. Ignat was also happy. But his joy was too short. He called a taxi and left early. Soon others followed suit. I was drunk and did not seem to notice how quickly my classmates dispersed.

Olya Likhacheva for some reason did not want to let me go. I got so drunk that I didn’t really want to leave. But when we were alone, the reason she wanted to be alone with me became clear – her lips tried to leave a lipstick mark on my face. I successfully waved it off, and was about to leave, when an elderly waiter stopped me. He brought me the bill. Huge account. It turned out that not everyone paid off when they left. I was a philosophical student, which means I was as poor as a beggar. Olya didn’t have any money either. Although I am sure that she still would not want to pay if she had the necessary amount. She was so mad at me.

What were we to do? We started calling those who an hour ago were sitting at the same table with us. Someone did not answer the call. Someone ended up on an ice rink and could not return to the restaurant earlier than an hour later. That night Ignat helped us out.

“Can this count as help?” he asked when we were alone. Saying this, he held out his hand to me. I slammed my fist into his open hand. Reeled. The blow was weak, but due to the strong swing, I almost fell to the floor. Again.

“Well, why do you always behave like this?” Ignat was sincerely indignant.

“How exactly?”, I asked, but I did it solely because I heard a note of sincerity in his question. His sincerity intrigued me.

“You are so loud… you want attention… you are everywhere… we are talking about Yesenin, and here you are… reading poetry, and here you are again… you reduce any topic to yourself… why do you need so much attention?”

“Bullshit…”, I objected. “I don’t even like the attention.”

“Maybe you demand it unconsciously?”

“Maybe you want to treat me with wine?”

Twenty minutes later we were sitting on a fallen tree in the yard with the lights off. His shoe was touching my shoe. Large drops of urine on our sneakers reflected the dim light from the windows. These houses surrounded us from all sides. Families lived in the houses, most of whom cared only for the maintenance of their own livelihoods. Our requests with Ignat were somewhat higher, and therefore we did not even consider open windows as witnesses to our conversation.

“Why are you so right, Ignat?”

“Just don’t know how to be different.”

“Would you like to?”

“To be different? What’s the point of this?”

“To get what you don’t have.”

“Like what?”

I thought. Alcohol made it difficult to formulate thoughts. The smell of Ignat interfered more. Suddenly he spoke:

“There is a guy in my village who played football better than me. I didn’t envy him. It was obvious to me that he played better than me. But for some reason, this guy competed with me all the time. And when he won, he looked at me so arrogantly … looked with disdain…”

“Would you like to be him?”

“No, I wouldn’t want to…”

“Then why did you remember him?”

“Don’t you understand it?”

I did not understand, and with all my appearance I showed it. I admit that because of alcohol my appearance was extremely ridiculous.

“Tell me”

“It’s you… you remind me of that guy.”

“So, you think I’m a fool?”

“I didn’t say that.”

“Do you think I’m a jerk?”

“No, I don’t think so”, Ignat even answered in a somewhat offended way.

“Why did you decide to blackmail me? Why didn’t you ask me to keep the incident a secret? Do you hate me that much?”

Ignat took several large sips of wine. I was drunk, but I also saw him getting drunk. The ideal student turns into a drunken kid. I knew that I was witnessing a rare event.

“I have phimosis.”

I thought that Ignat was embarrassed by the erection that I caused. And it turned out that he had phimosis. I didn’t even pay attention to it. It amused me. It’s amazing how people are often proud of what they got from nature, to which he did not put a drop of effort. The reverse is also surprising – some are so embarrassed by what they are not guilty of.

“Isn’t it fixable with surgery?”

“I’m afraid. Do you even know how they do it?! No, no, I’m afraid.”

So, the ideal student confided his vulnerability to me. I suddenly felt a gratitude of such magnitude that the entire yard was filled with it. My gratitude turned into a huge balloon filled with chewing gum. The ball got bigger. Now he has become more than my head and more than my body. So, he covered the body of Ignat, this sun-bleached village boy. The sticky ball of fruit gum was already so big that it began to push the windows inside the houses. Finally, my gratitude reached the starry sky. I stumbled either on an antenna or on a sharp star and burst. We argued until the morning about what this bubble ran into: an antenna or a sharp star? Ignat claimed that the star. I succumbed to him in this dispute.


Natasha Osokina wrote that she always saw a hero in Ignat. War cannot justify killing. A soldier is not a mountain, but a killer. Not going to kill, even at the cost of your own life – that’s real heroism. So, she wrote. And then she asked what percentage of earnings taxes in Poland are.


Soon Ignat had a girlfriend. He proudly showed us her photo. I couldn’t believe this was true. I firmly believed that he could have feelings for me. The girl was needed just as a cover. He is afraid to admit to himself that he is gay. But joint photos of these two multiplied. Here they are kissing. Here he is hugging her. Here she is kissing him on the cheek.

It’s hard to believe that a young attractive guy can aspire to the village. Usually from the villages everyone is trying to move to big cities. Build a career. Get a wheelbarrow. But Ignat dreamed of becoming a Russian language teacher in his native village. And he became one.

But soon the Russian language and literature were removed from the curriculum of Ukrainian schools. Then Ignat began to teach English. The children loved him, but his peers did not. Being a favourite of adults, Ignat, as it were, personified all the very outdated things that advanced teenagers shun. “Black Man” won the fight against the “White Birch”, but only if the teenagers fought. In the lower grades, the defiant “Black Man” remained incomprehensible, and therefore preference was given to “Birch”. Ignat rejoiced at the children’s election, ignoring the negative reaction of teenagers.

Being kind to the old teachers, Ignat transmitted their ideas to the students. Helpfulness. Recognition of authority, which could be based not on achievements, but on age. Softness. Conflict-free. Willingness to give up one’s point of view in favour of superior power. That’s what Ignat consisted of. Most of the teachers at his school consisted of this. And that’s exactly what teenagers struggle with.

“Yesenin is ours!”, shouted the teenagers. “Yesenin is a bully, not a bore! Let’s not offend our Yesenin. Tear out a poem about a birch! Let’s talk about the guitar and taverns!”

But the Russian language is being cancelled as a subject. Moreover, the teaching of other subjects should be done in Ukrainian. But Ignat barely speaks Ukrainian. Children do not understand Ukrainian. Achievement plummets. For the first time, children hear mathematical terms in Ukrainian, and they are required to not only re-understand mathematical theory but also successfully operate these terms themselves. The rules of English grammar become incomprehensible. Parts of speech suddenly put on masks and became unfamiliar again. Who is guilty? What to do?

While both the students and their parents were outraged, Ignat lamented his love for Yesenin. There will be no more disputes. “Black Man” defeated “Birch”. The birch cracked. Nobody is going to get revenge.


Grisha wrote that he always considered Ignat a coward, and then for some reason deleted the account.


I’m afraid of you, Ignat Andreev. I’ve always envied your last name. Leonid Andreev. Daniel Andreev. Such great people bore this surname. If I had such a surname, I would… I would…

How many years have passed since we all graduated from university? Seven? Eight? You haven’t called me since. And I didn’t call you. What’s more, I didn’t even think about you. When I received news about university friends, I never received news about you. Everything was usually limited to the phrase: “As he dreamed, he teaches in his village”. You and I are not just different, we are opposites. You are a child; I am a teenager. Not by age, but by spirit, by consciousness. And I protested against you. For me, you have always been a sleeping person, someone who is just about to wake up. I thought a tragedy was about to happen to you. That tragedy will wake you up. But it proved fatal.

Will you scare me in the reflection of mirrors? Will you appear in my nightmares? I don’t have any of your photographs, although your pointed chin scratches my memories today like never before.

Looking back at my university years, I realise that you never felt anything for me. I didn’t feel anything for you either, except curiosity. Moreover, in my university years, I believed that life is a prison for souls. You must have heard this theory. Now you have the opportunity to test it. This is where the souls who are punished go. Here they are being corrected. And the souls that come here to study also end up on earth. They need a karmic lesson. This is how they grow. But this prison also has a third component – empty people, extras, which makes the prison not so obvious. And so, I thought that you were a representative of the crowd. But now I see that you came here for growth. Now I reach for you, but I rest against the coffin lid. Stories of suicide have always smacked of madness, but in times of war, few stories sound as sensible as the story of voluntary death. But was it voluntary?


Gleb Konstantinov wrote the following: “Does anyone have his wife’s number? Ignat borrowed money from me last year. Do you think his wife can be trusted?”


I sent a draft of the story to his wife. More like a widow. The first thing she said was, “But he didn’t have phimosis. Moreover, he began to masturbate quite early, and his parents had to invent various tricks to wean Ignat from obsessive desire.”

When Russian was abolished as a subject at his school, Ignat began to drink. As a legacy from his grandfather, he still received moonshine. So, he began to drive moonshine. It turned out so well for him that the income from the sale of moonshine exceeded the income from teaching. When Ignat nevertheless got a position as an English teacher, he wanted to put an end to the illegal sale of alcohol. But his wife got pregnant. She forced him to continue because the appearance of a child required additional finances. And he continued. Hated myself for it, but I continued.

The child was born sickly. A lot of money was spent on treatment and doctors. And therefore, when the slightly grown-up students of Ignat began to come to him for moonshine, he did not refuse them. Selling alcohol to kids. He saw them drunk, staggering around the village. Angry. But when they came back, he again sold alcohol to them. The children got drunk. They shouted to him: “And why did you sell Russian poets to us?! Why do we need this in the village, eh?”. Ignat locked the door with two locks, but even after that, he did not feel safe. Soon, Ignat’s house became the only house whose front door was decorated with a custom-made iron grating.


“I got the number. His wife is a bitch. Ignat in memory,” wrote Gleb Konstantinov.


His village was captured by the Russian army at the very beginning of the war. And since then, Ignat lived in occupation. The Russians soon brought their textbooks to the village school. They brought their man, who told the teachers how to teach correctly. Russian literature appeared again in the school curriculum, but it was not the literature that was before. Now all poets, and especially Yesenin, have become ideological poets. Yesenin was no longer associated with either birches or hooliganism. Now he was a patriot of Russia. He glorified Russia in poetry. And he wrote not about birches, but about Russian birches. And the snow fell on these birch trees, not any, but Russian. And it was important to convey this to the children. But Ignat did not want to.

The old teachers quickly resigned themselves to their fate. We switched back to Russian as the language of instruction. Ignat did not want to cross. Now it was not the Russian language, now it was an instrument of the ideology of the Russian world. But the Ukrainian language has also become an instrument of patriotic propaganda, demanding to give one’s life for a culture that has always seemed foreign. That is why Ignat began to teach English in English. If the children did not understand the rules without translation, Ignat drew simplified diagrams on the board. I tried to convey to the children the idea – if they are forced to choose between two options, then most likely both options are wrong. Are you Russian or Ukrainian?

“I am a human being,” said Ignat. “And you?”

One of the students reported on Ignat. “Propaganda something incomprehensible, but definitely hostile,” it was written in this denunciation. The denunciation was written by the parents from the words of the child. Who was this child, Ignat guessed. Why was it only more painful to bear the beatings?

And a month later he was given a salary not in hryvnias, but in rubles. Soon the children began to bring rubles to buy moonshine. His child was sick. The wife paid more attention to the child than to him. He treated this with understanding, but when he needed her support, she ignored her husband. They began to quarrel. The child was sick again. The students were drinking. There were fights nearby. The military was everywhere. My wife and I were constantly arguing. The child was sick. Quarrels with wife. The military was scared. I was sick. They cursed.

And then two guys in military uniform raped his wife. They blindfolded her, and therefore she could not recognise them. He wanted revenge, but he did not know to whom. And when the child needed a doctor again, they had no money left at all. Then a soldier knocked on their door.

“Do you sell moonshine?”

Ignat nodded reluctantly.

“They say you have the best and cheapest. Will you give it a try?”

Ignat brought out a five-litre jar of clear liquid. The military man held out several crumpled bills.


“Are you sure he is dead? Where is the information from? Now you can’t trust anyone. We need to check everything,” wrote Tanya Zhukova.


During the war, his wife had grown so old that at thirty she looked older than Ignat’s mother. As a result, he was no longer physically attracted to her. But she didn’t care. The main man in her life was now a child. Ignat was jealous of his own son. And he did not like the very fact of this jealousy. He despised himself for allowing himself to be jealous of his own child. So undignified. It’s a pity. And so, when he had a chance to escape from these thoughts, he took it. This way he started cheating on her with someone from school.

At first, they quarrelled because there was not enough money. The child grew so fast that they did not have time to buy him new clothes. Prices were rising. The choice in local stores was poor. They didn’t have a car. And then there’s this war. From the explosions, the cow stopped giving milk. Stress. The military stole eggs and chickens. Forced to sell them stocks of grain. Often came to them for moonshine. And if at first the wife was against the sale of alcohol to Russian soldiers, then soon she began to do this, it turned out to be so profitable. She thought that if she was in contact with the soldiers, then her feminine charm would increase income. And the income from the sale of moonshine really increased, but not because of her charm, but because of the pity that the soldiers felt for the old woman.

One day, Ignat’s wife visited the school without warning. She wanted to talk to the director about her husband and how to get medicine for their child. There was practically nothing in the two nearest pharmacies. The child was sick. She didn’t sleep at night and looked so tired, as if their house was selling not only alcohol, but also vitality.

Despite the fact that everyone in the village knew each other, the director did not immediately recognise the wife of his employee in the woman. Expecting to see the same age, he was horrified to suddenly discern familiar features in her. During the conversation, the military broke into the office. They dragged a 6th grade student into the office. They wanted to undress her. But the principal stood up. Then the military, who had drunk moonshine from Ignat’s house, drove the girl away, and drove away Ignat’s wife, and locked themselves in the office with the principal. The woman stood for a long time near the locked door, leaning her ear against it. She seemed to have turned into a monument to humiliation, realising that the young and drunk military men decided to rape now not even her, but the old principal. Not that she wanted to be in his place. No. But she would like their choice to fall on her, and that she would be able to escape.


“Who should I send the funeral money to?”, Tanya writes after some time.


If earlier, through the occupied territories, men could travel to Russia, and from Russia they went to Europe. Now rumours have begun to circulate that local men will be involved in patrolling the village. They will not issue weapons, but they will definitely assign a caretaker. And so it happened. But the caretakers mocked the local men. The meanest of the locals became caretakers. These were particularly brutal. It entertained the soldiers tired of the war.

“Shall we call the teacher? Let him read us Yesenin. There are all sorts of birch trees and taverns!”, suggested the drunken former pupil of Ignat. The soldiers liked the idea. Ignat was really called. Late at night. Sleepy. Not able to get dressed. They were pushed out of the house, to the cry of a sick child, who was awakened against his will.

“Let the child at least calm down!”, Ignat asked.

“Do you want to take him with you?”

Ignat didn’t want to. Within a quarter of an hour, he was standing on one leg. With a stool in outstretched arms. Doused with ice water. So, he read Yesenin. And wept. And each of his sobs caused a wave of soldiers’ laughter.


“He worked as a teacher in his village. Participated in all sorts of conferences there. Developed all sorts of lessons and scientific stuff. Well, as always, he was a nice guy. An exemplary family man. And here it is… do such people really have reasons for suicide?”, Oksana texted. She was the quietest girl in the university. The last news I heard about her was about sex with a dog.


Then there was a period when all the locals were forbidden to turn on the lights in their houses at night. By that time, Ignat had practically stopped leaving the house. His wife later told the police officer: “He was so used to the dark that the light from the refrigerator blinded him.” The man will decide that the woman is dramatising, but she is the opposite – even after the death of Ignat, she underestimated the degree of his misfortune.


“If my husband had chickened out and committed suicide, leaving me alone with a child during the war, then I’d have found him in the outer world to kill him again,” texts Masha Semenova.

“Chickened out? Do you have any idea how much courage you need to have to take your own life?” Stas Burin will write.

“Courage is needed in order to live,” answers Masha Semenova.

“But if life is so terrible that one cannot live without courage, then is such a life even necessary?” Oksana writes.


“They ask us why we take the wounded? And you try to shoot the bound person. You cannot. And if it works out, then it’s over… Here is a lost person… such a person will no longer adapt to a normal life”, the Ukrainian military man answered Ignat.

“Why don’t you let us out of the village? The Russians let us out, but you don’t let us out. Why?”, Ignat asked the military man again, and heard the following in response:

“Glory to Ukraine! Glory to the hero! Together we will liberate all the occupied territories. We are going to win. We will win by military means. No compromise! None”

“But why don’t you let me leave?”

“Glory to heroes!”

“Can you hear me? Wait! There are no medicines in pharmacies. I urgently need medication. My child needs. Wait!”


“Impotence raises suicide,” writes a teacher of literature, which was an authority for all of us.


“So, you changed moonshine for Russians for food? I’m sorry, what? For money too? And how much did they earn?

Ignat’s wife is standing near the rickety fence. Nearby, on a long bench, there are ten five-litre cans of moonshine. A woman stands with a child in her arms. Opposite her are three Ukrainian soldiers. One holds a stick in his hands, and, after each word, he knocks the stick on the ground, sometimes touching the woman’s shoes.

“Did you heat up the bathhouse for them?”

The voice is loud. Angry. But the child seems to be sleeping.

“Do you even understand that they get drunk, and then they go to shoot our boys?!”

“They would have fired without me,” the woman says, emboldened.

“Do you receive a Ukrainian pension?”, the man says reproachfully in his voice. Retirement. Retirement… Her face becomes a trail of tears, which roll down her face at full speed, as if from a cliff. Tears fall right on the child’s face, but the child does not wake up.

“Where is your elder?”


“Well, your son? A teacher”

“Serves,” the woman lied.

“Say hello to your son,” the soldier shouts, and then he raises the stick in the air, and with it breaks one can of moonshine after another. Alcohol is poured onto the bench. Spills onto the ground. Fifty litres of alcohol exude a stench.

“They ask us why we take the wounded? And you try to shoot the bound person…”

The soldiers laugh. Neither laughter, nor cold tears, nor the loud voice of a military man, nothing wakes the child up.


My funny suit. Black sweater. Classic pants. A belt buckle resembling a steel cart stained with ore, young miners’ sweat, saliva and hopes. It was all a trap waiting for me to dress up. My subconscious in some incredible way foresaw the tragedy, prepared for it. Nonsense. During the war, every day was a tragedy. What is surprising here? But in times of war, people make soldiers heroes. Losing attention to those who refused to take up arms.

“Styopa has not gone outside since the summer. We protect him from the draft board,” writes Marina Krotkaya. “Wait, today is the anniversary of the war? So, Ignat left this world the day before the anniversary…”

“Did Styopa not leave the house for a whole year?”, Agatha asks.

“I also didn’t go out for a year,” writes Oleg Dolin. “And to be honest, I envy Ignat. I envy him because he had the courage to do what I don’t have the courage to do.”

When I learned about Ignat’s death, I felt guilty. As if I had missed the chance to appear in his life, to hear his cry, to calm him down, to save him. But his cry did not reach me. That is why, telling others about his death, I imagined myself to be a continuation of his cry. And this story is my voice, but his cry. Let everyone hear. Let everyone share his pain. This is what makes us human.

“Oleg, don’t write nonsense.”

“Don’t draw attention to yourself, Oleg. I know how unpleasant it is for you that everyone is discussing Ignat, and not you.”

“Oleg, I will pick you up soon. There’s nothing to worry about on the street. My husband is guarding us.”

“A whole year without leaving the house? For God’s sake!”


I ask Ignat’s wife why he hung himself after all. Maybe she knows why? The old woman replies: “He was called for urgent service, to be an angel.” More precisely, his beautiful young wife answers. Of course, a young and beautiful wife.

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