Interludes in a life : the beginning part 1
Sophie had felt from the beginning that there was something wrong. Nothing she could pin down, only a malaise. She almost expected a miscarriage that never happened, and stroked her still-swelling belly with a sense of misgiving, then wonder, and finally hope.
Just her imagination, surely. Silliness, she decided, magnified by the knowledge of a nurse-midwife which sent what-ifs unbidden, lurking troll-like through the fancies of a first-time mother. It didn't help that they were far from home. She had never gotten used to the bleak company town near the reactor. Chornobyl was a good name. Place of black grass. Land of darkness...
She turned to her husband then, home just then, fresh from work. Well, maybe fresh wasn't the word, not that it mattered. She pressed against his solid form, as protective as the foundations he laid, his arms, encircling, strong as the steel beams he erected. Comforted, yet still worried. Was her body as protective of the little life within? Could she shield the tiny spark from harm, as Danill did her?
Ireepressible but not insensitive, his gingery brows wriggled like caterpillars when she sidled up to him, seeking his solidity like the rain-chased sought an alcove in a building. No wire he had ever strung responded under his hand as clearly as he did at her touch. His mates would be suprised. The voice that could roar through a construction site like an earthquake, so soft here. "Beloved." He nuzzled her neck, his fierce mustaches tickling her ear, his arms encircling from behind her, warm and sure. He had seen this worry before, but did not try to reassure, in the way he knew some women needed. His Sophie was strong, stronger than him, in this way. She needed not to turn from a truth, but to face it with another who could face it, too.
And besides, How could he? Their own Ukrainian people's history, hundreds of years worth, was proof and proof again, that whatever bad that could be conceived by man, was still not as bad as what could happen. He could not even promise that they would live another day, that he would come back from work alive tomorrow. That he would never lose her, to some accident on the street, or some hospital-borne illness. How then, could he make pronouncement on a life yet unseen, hidden within the mystery of new creation? The earth he could divine, the land he could read, but this was beyond him. This was the business of the only One who could see what was still dark for them.
It was as much a comfort for him as her to rest his chin gently upon her sweet, butter-colored hair. It had always amazed him, awed him, that she had come to him - to him! - for comfort. He could outdrink - and outfight! - nearly any man who'd tried to best him, but this woman, ah...nothing living nor mechanical had tested the man in him as much as she. That she did not find him wanting sent a shock of joy through him sharp as from any live wire. The arms that could heft a pile-driver as if it were a pencil, he could only hope were strong enough to protect her. She was so silent...
"Whatever happens, whatever comes, we will deal, all three. There is nothing so bad that cannot be borne, with God's help."
Daniil's theological knowledge was not deep, but it was solid as everything else about him. He would serve his God and his Sophie with all his strength, love them with all he had to give. It was God's business to decide how good a laborer he had been, when his time came. He simply took for granted that the Good One would be a better Foreman to him, than even he was to his own men.
When a building went up without a hitch, you celebrated, loudly and long and with much happy lubrication. When tragedy struck, you dealt, and went on. Simple.
A little building was going up inside her, but he wasn't the foreman, and the little workers not under his orders. So he hoped for no hitches - and decided he'd celebrate anyway.
Melancholy was a Ukrainian tradition, but so was great cheer. Their people felt everything, and felt it deeply.
He pulled her away from him when he thought she was ready. His eyes sparkled like sun speckles on the green sea, gazing into her clear sky eyes. His hands, broad, rough, work-worn, cradled her upturned face like a delicate glowing flower. So aware, suddenly, how deceptive her fragility, how easily he could be crushed by her. To bear her grief, if grief came, would be the harshest test, he hoped no more than he could bear. He could not imagine seeing her hurt, yet knew that hurt would come, it always did, in its time. He only hoped to be ready. He dropped another few spoken stones into her quiet well.
"No fear, lovely one. He will be a fine son, a joy to our youth, a bulwark in our age!
She laughed suddenly as a roving hand found a favorite tickle spot between ribs, slapped it away playfully.
"So, my husband is a baby-dowser, now, that he should know?"
He chuckled low. " No, but you - "
The look stopped him sooner than the finger on his lips. It was her gift, to see inside, to heal, but a cold fear like a sharp wind had stopped her every time.
Daniil pulled her tight to him again, the steady beat of his heart the only soothing word he could give.
Interludes of a life: the beginning, part 2
Sophie was surprised to feel the first kick. It had come late in the pregnancy, and she had begun to think that the child had died, that she would soon miscarry. There was no ultrasound in the viliage where they lived, but they didn't feel the lack, used as they were to the old way of doing things. She was going to see the doctor to verify the worst, and prepare, when she felt it, a tiny flutter that at first could have been wishful thinking. She left, much relieved, taking the baby bag with her. It wouldn't do to be unprepared. She'd arranged rides, and their doctor would take her home in plenty of time to make a simple supper.
Daniil came home, and breathed in a great whiff of - nothing. Hungry, he'd expected cooking smells and a welcome presence, only to find a whole lot of not a whole lot, and a missing baby bag. Hunger vanished along with the fleeting thought of calling the hospital. If he'd just missed her, the wait on the phone would turn up nothing anyway. Better to catch up sooner than later. The grumble of the truck's engine and a sharp skid was the only sign of his concern, his eyes hunting every vehicle he passed, both ways.
She had been and gone, and the doctor with her, two hours ago. Plenty of time to have gotten back home. Oh, that he could read her as he read the land! Worried now, the same instinct that had driven her drove him to the only other place that she could be.
A place as familiar as home, that was home. Dark golds, reds, purples, blues, the smell of incense. Benign faces, family...even when empty, never empty, the very windows of heaven...
And there, his own window. Framed in the browns of earth, the golds of heaven's air. He strode down the center of the church, almost running, to her. Sitting with her, his arms sliding round her like the royal door enclosing the holy place, doubly enclosing the holy place within her.
Her eys rising to his, joyful but haunted. Her voice a whisper of awe and pain...
"He lives, Dani, he lives! But he is so sick..."
He ached for her. Such joy, such terror...He wondered anew that any man should think himself stronger than a woman with child.
Interrludes of a life: the beginning, part 3
"So. You have seen."
Not a question. He knew it would come. This was their child, and the fear that had her stopping his words when he mentioned her gift, he knew would give way in the face of her child's need. He held her, silent in the silence.
Her whisper began, insubstantial. He braced both of them. The greatest collapses began with the softest shifts of earth...
"The doctor...said his heart was weak. I...Dani, if...if he died of something I could have prevented, I could never..." A wordless croon deep within him underscored the words that faded. He could feel the swell of them returning, even as her head dipped to bury it in his chest. "I sought for his heart, to make it strong, and it is, now, but....oh love, I do not know what I saw, I do not understand it... I want him to live, so much! What if God wills that we lose our child! Could it be that it was supposed to happen?"
<"Ah, Sophie, Sophie...God does not will the loss. But if loss must come, He wills us to be strong for it.">
Daniil knew, he had lost men before. Even he, 'gifted-of-God' as his people called it, could not be lucky all the time. He could read the earth, knew to warn his men away from drilling into a gas pocket, or laying a foundation in unstable ground. Yet, he had held his share of crying wives and sobbing children, his own eyes blind with tears. He tipped her head back up, to see those eyes, to give her the hope he needed too. He grinned, tentatively, crookedly, one furry brow raised.
"I have a difficult task, I chose the most skilled man. Does the Good Lord choose less wisely than me?" His grin widened at her faint chuckle, and he shrugged expressively. "You have a gift, and now a child who needs it. Sounds like God's will to me."
He tipped his head down and kisses her, gently, lingering past any new protest. An unspoken promise, that they would not only live, but thrive, and their son with them...
Interludes of a life - The Beginning part 4
The day they hoped for, the day they dreaded...
It was the first time Danii had been separated from her against his will, and the whole hospital knew his displeasure. Not that he was making trouble, he'd been a patient and cheerful visitor for months, and they all knew he hadn't a mean bone in his body. Still, it was hard not to notice a man who could leave short wide holes in things, and his stalking presence, larger than his stature, filled the small place. He paced the length and breadth of it, and, taking pity on a guard dog bereft of his mistress, they didn't prevent him. He'd helped build this place and moved in seeming oblivion from maternity ward to lobby and back, pausing only at the glass into the babies' room, as if a glowering stare and force of will alone would teleport his first-born there.
How many rounds, how long a time? He no longer knew, but was stopped in his pergrinations by a doctor and two nurses.
"You have to...cut...her?"
Facing an angry man would not have hurt as much as this. Tell him to go into battle, face certain death, and he would have roared his assent and gone. Tell him his wife was being prepped for a caesarian, and they saw a man deflate, his last words a tremulous whisper. He simply nodded, not listening to their explanation, not able to. Sophie was not the first to have a baby that way, but...this was his Sophie, going under the knife! He raised the frightened but trusting eyes of a little boy to the doctor, before turning away. They would not do such a thing unless it was needful. I was that simple.
A nurse paced his heavy steps, mentioning the church next door. He shook his head, wordless, unable to bear being so far. She led him to a private room with an icon of the Lord, and left him, gently closing the door. Alone, he went to his knees and bent til his forehead touched the cold floor, and prayed.
It could have been hours as far as he knew, before he felt the nudge of a boot against his flank, and heard the rough gravelly voice.
"Prostrations are good, but not for sleeping."
"Am not sleeping!" The big man let himself be yanked up by the bigger man. Bodhan Khemelnetsky, who towered over Daniil by almost a foot and was a third again as big, was grinning his famous 'gotcha' grin.
"Bro! But...you are at Khortytsia!" Indeed, the horsemaster was still in riding gear, and smelled vaguely of his four-legged brothers.
"Truly?" The fierce hug Bo gave would have been backbreaking to any other man, and it was amply returned, until Daniil wheezed... "Gah! Let breathe, then! You're here, hokay?!" Both stepped back, chuckled and Bo shrugged. "An American reporter and two tickets to Madison Square Gardens will get you almost anywhere. As for you - time to go see -" He spoke to an empty room. "Your wife?" Bo took his time, except to lean out of the open door and shout "Use door, not wall!" There was a long story behind that, and he knew well, that at times of highest trouble, humor was often the only balm.
Daniil managed to heed the warning, barely. The figure on the bed was sweaty, disheveled, pale, features drawn with pain and more - and so beautiful he thought his heart would stop just looking at her.
But her arms were empty, and there was no little bed nearby.
"Dani... they have taken him away, they would not even let me see him...Dani, he needs me, he needs me now.
Interludes of a life - the beginning part 5
"So...who is the one who does nor let my wife see our child?"
His voice was low and carefully casual, with an undertone that made it clear that he hadn't made trouble not because he couldn't, but because he chose not to. Daniil trusted Sophie implicitly. She was not the type to object to what had to be done, and he knew that she had a knowledge of their son no one else had. So when she said 'now', he would make it 'now'. Period.
He had raked his eyes over the little ones in the babies' room on his way. Some would say that babies all look alike, but he had been this way how many times in the last several hours?He would have noticed any changes. Now he stood in the ICU, the same doctor he had once turned trusting eyes to between him and a small back room that served as an isolation chamber.
Bohdan, who had followed him in his about face down this hall, leaned against the wall just outside the ICU, with a friendly 'nope not doing nothing, not me" air. He could hear the exchange between the two other men, and if there was trouble - well, it would not be Danill's trouble.
"Citizen Varlamin, I'm sorry. We were preparing the papers. We wanted to break it to you gently. The child is...stillborn. There was no need to shock -"
The words hit like a hammerblow - my son! my son! and Daniil shifted, seeking a more stolid stance in a world gone shaky. But there was something wrong with what was said, and how, to Danill's ears. His eyes were no longer so trusting.
He stepped forward, towards the closed door that the doctor, shifting subtly, seemed determined that he not enter.
"If ...he is dead, then I shall see..." His tone was heavy with grief, but adamant. He did not turn away, which seemed to rattle the doctor, who must have expected the meek resignation of before.
"It is better not, i'm so sorry.."
"Excuse me, citizens." A third voice approached, and Danil sighed inwardly "Is there a conflict?"
Danill did not know why the political officer was here, there was no love lost between the keen Soviet and the always suspect Ukrainian peasant. Why would he be concerned with the birth of yet another? The relief on the doctor's face was answer enough. Two against two was no good odds, if all the authority and advantages were with only one side.
"The child is dead, sir, it's over. Stillborn. He should take his wife home to grieve.. We can send the body home later, after the papers - ."
"In there?" the officer nodded towards the inner room. "Then let him see it. I will witness it myself."
Witness the peasant being insufficiently Soviet? Daniil wondered. Or just to see the look of pain? He held his tongue, a habit he'd gotten too used to here, so close to the Russian border. No need to hand the man more bullets than he already had.
"Sir, it's over, we don't need this - " But the doctor stepped back, towards the door, and opened it, hoping the nurse inside had been following. She had, but unsure what to do, had done nothing but continued with the doctors previous instructions.
The room hummed, flashed and beeped with lights and electricals, every monitor in use. Daniil was not surprised, Sophie had told him how noisy it could get in there. But what caught his eye was the doctor's fleeting look of betrayal. Ambushed, not rescued. The officer had been summoned....summoned to stop this, not abet it. The officer's smug look answered back. Gotcha, and not kindly meant. He'd meant this to be trouble to both of them, peasant and intellectual both. Just a little amusement, to pass the time, and maybe a black mark or two, on each of them.
Danill, clueless about politics except for knowing that he had stepped into a reeking pile of it, only belatedly followed both gazes to the focus of all this. An incubator, the occupant of which seemed to sprout monitor leads like an old potato sprouting stems.
Or, a mandrake. He had heard the legends of roots in the form of babies, screaming insanity into the minds of those who would dare pull them from the ground.
The mouth was open, but the scream was only a gasping for breath, soundless in the mere effort to pull air, eyes squinched against the light. Limbs taut not in the rigor of death, but in the way any infant had, when angered at the lack of food.
His son was alive.
Interludes of a life - the beginning part 6
The doctor spoke first, in a rush to make his case. Caught in a lie he meant to be true, he spoke more to his would-be ally, who could surely be made to see the sense in this. Once united, the opinions of the father would be immaterial.
For Danill, to see movement and life where he was told was death, was enough. He was so full of that, that he couldn't see past it, not even feel angry. Their opinions meant less to him. He had a job to do.
"...so you see, I had to move quickly, to get as much information as I could before the body failed. I expected the time of death by now, I've seen nothing like this - "
None of them had. The doctor's tone held a cold clinical interest, ill-concealing a sharp eagerness to be back to his observations. The officer did not conceal his feelings at all, his face twisted into a mask of disgust.
"Just...get rid of it."
"You heard me!"
It was between the two of them now. The others may as well have not been there. Just as well. Daniil had a job to do, a directive to follow and there was no thought beyond it.
He needs me now.
The figure of Bohdan towered over them stolidly, allowing Daniil free access back through the door. He'd heard nothing from his normally vocal bro, and that meant something worse than yelling. He had come, inevitable as the tide, and as easy to resist as a rock wall.
He needs me now.
Daniil held on to that thought like a lifeline. Nothing else mattered yet. There was no life support, he noticed that much. Monitor leads peeled away under hands that together were bigger than the child, and he scooped up both him and the sheet underlying, and was gone.
Interludes of a life - the beginning part 7
He could feel the wrongness under his hands, as he held the baby tight against his racing heart. It couldn't matter now. That was Sophie's gift, she would know what to do.
He came in, his face unreadable, and lay the tangle of sheets and child in the welcoming crook of her arm. Both of them unwrapped him. Sophie took the tiny unmoving thing, the eyes still closed, weary now from the effort of breathing. What wasn't grayish was bluish, save for the ill-washed traces of the fluids of birth, as if the nurse had tried to not touch him at all, but had only dabbed at the easiest places. His tiny chest throbbed with fitful effort, odd the movement that tied a swollen half to a sunken one. Sophie ran a finger along the swollen side, oblivious to the men that overhung her, as if she had done the same a hundred times, was only continuing a ritual long established. She looked at him, seemed to look through him. The silence around them all preternaturally deep.
Daniil looked at her intensely, almost beseechingly. Do what you must, do it now. Within, mind and heart reeled, unable to articulate his own thoughts, even to himself. His eyes moved from mother to child. He was a simple man, more used to action than words - and he had no more actions to perform. His gaze retreated to the middle distance, seeing what only he himself saw.
Bohdan had circled around the other side of the room, as if prepared to flank an enemy. He had made no face to the other men, but now scowled fiercely, moving back beyond the foot of the bed, not looking at the baby, but only at Daniil. His eyes glittered, his voice matter-of-fact.
"If this one was a colt, he would have to be put down."
Dan was on him like a cannonball, slamming into the bigger man, his whole body tense with the desire to shove him through the wall instead of just against it. The sudden roar rattled windows.
"Not. You. Too! Never say such a thing again about MY SON!!"
Bohdan had not even tried to defend himself, his arms upraised in a surrender gesture. He had felt the plaster and lathe behind him give, and knew how close his bro's wish had come.
"Thanks to the Lord my God, to see that fire in my brother's eyes. Forgive me. I had to see for myself that you love him."
Daniil stepped back, shaking his head in stunned disbelief.
"Love him?! He is my bone, and flesh, my heart! Head of a damn rock! Of course I LOVE HIM!"
Then the fading rush of adrenaline left Daniil again trying to find purchase in a world gone sideways. He had wondered as a child what it would be like to ride in the drum of a concrete mixer. Now, he didn't want to know, he could feel it.
"...I'm...just not sure I can be a father to him..."
Interludes of a life - the beginning part 8
Daniil in his loud upset missed the squalling wail. Bohdan did not, nor miss Sophie's startlement and look of relief. What ever happened, had been good.
Bohdan laughed richly. Daniil stared at him as at a madman, shrugged explosively. 'What, what?"
"Truth, that fear is every man's. All fathers feel it when they see their firstborn...and their second...sometimes third. Heh. I should know, yes? Luba pops them out every couple years, don't know how." He chuckled meaningfully. "You better have twins next if you want any hope of catching up."
"This is different -"
"You ashamed of him?"
'Ready to hire a damaged man, but not to have one in your family?"
"NO!!" Dan looked a warning at him. Dangerous words. He hissed roughly, not wanting Sophie to hear. "How - How am I to protect him from men like that?! " He jerked his head back towards the ICU. "One sees a thing to study, one sees a - " He wouldn't say monster, he knew the word would come too soon as it was. "Who will see the boy? How can I be strong enough to teach him to be strong, knowing every day, every moment that that is what he will face? I will fail them both..."
A tired but sweet voice spoke from the bed. "When you have a difficult task, you choose the most skilled man. Does the good Lord choose less wisely than you?"
Daniil moved to her slowly, sitting heavily in the chair, looking like a man rescued from hell. If she believed in him....
"Sophie, forgive me...I have never truly been afraid, til now -"
"There is nothing to forgive, my husband. If you were not afraid, you would not be man but machine."
"I...don't know what to do..."
"You can burp him."
Bohdan left the room, leaned against the outside wall. This was their time now, and his job was to keep it that way. There had been footsteps outside, and he might need to do some - persuading.
Yes. If she believed in him, and they both believed in their boy...then, he would believe in himself.