A sudden strange nerve-wrack took over my body. It felt like explosions here and there. In the leg, in the back, in my arm, in the knee, in the elbow, in the jaw.
Kharkiv is bombed.
Dnipro is bombed.
Poltava is bombed.
Ivano-Frankivsk is bombed.
Lutsk is bombed.
Sumy is bombed.
I felt it all in my body.
Nastya kept reading the news. I just stared at the traffic. The driver smoked out of the window. The men came back from the store and drank in the backseat.
“How can you even drink now?” I asked.
“Well, may Putin choke on it, we are Ukrainians. We can drink even now.”
I stopped to think about it. It looked a lot like Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks, the old painting by Repin. My people, even when facing the danger of war and death, make jokes about it. They laugh. It’s been that way hundreds of years ago. It’s happening now again.
“Do we have any food left?” I turned back to my husband. He handed over a plastic bag with some dry meat inside.
“We should’ve bought some bread,” I said. “But where…”
The men from the backseat shared a piece of theirs.
I broke it into two pieces and handed one of them over to Nastya.
“I don’t want it,” she said. “I’m not hungry”
I wasn’t either. The nausea was almost burning all the way down from the throat to the stomach. I could barely look at the food. But I knew it would only get worse if I didn’t make myself eat.
“You should have some,” I said. “We’ve been here all day, we have to eat something.”
She took the piece of bread and some meat. I saw some breadcrumbs fall down and shook them off. The bread was cheap and pretty awful to taste, but it was real and got a bit warm from my hands.
“Look.” I pointed my finger across the road. Cars stuck in traffic tried to make way for heavily armed formations.
“Fuck, there’s a tank in the middle of the road,” Nastya said. “Olya, it’s war.”
“Congrats on the connection.”
“Well, I know it, right! I know, but like… now for real.”
People started to remove a part of the fence to clear the road. Piece by piece a barrier was taken down, and the column of tanks and armored vehicles moved right in front of our small van. Our driver carelessly smoked out of the window.
Threads of tanks scraped and ground along the highway, leaving long traces. It felt like a wound. It felt like a long dirty scratch slowly spreading on the dry skin. I felt the food slowly going down to my stomach and nausea rising again. How could I eat like a minute ago, when all this happens around?
I looked up at the soldiers’ faces. They rode on top of the tanks, holding weapons, passing cigarettes to one other, and… smiling. People took out their phones to take pictures, some started waving to greet them. And the soldiers waved back.
It felt right. The soldiers being so close, the crammed road, the taste of food stuck in my throat, the burning sun, hitting our windshield. We will withstand all of this, I thought. It’ll be okay soon.
How are you? Did you manage to get out? — a message from my friend who refused to go a couple of hours ago.
“Still in Kyiv, in the traffic on the way out.”
I looked up the time. We had spent 8 hours on the road and barely traveled 6 kilometers.
“Yes, look what’s around”
“Please, leave,” I said.
“You must be tired to death,” he answered.
“Nope, I feel nothing.”
“I think, you’ll feel it later.”
I doubted it. It felt like I would never be able to sleep again. It felt like my eyes were falling out and wouldn’t ever be able to close again. I leaned forward and felt my back hurt from sitting. It would get worse, I knew that. But at least we started moving a bit.
Right after the tanks had passed by, the traffic began to clear. Some cars flipped over into the opposite lane, to travel faster. We stayed right inside the traffic and moved with the flood. It took us another hour to get to the outskirts of the city.
The opposite lane was half taken by the cars rushing out of Kyiv, but half of the road was saved for tanks and heavily armed formations. They kept coming, one by one. Each of them had people riding on the top and smiling with confidence. To the left, we saw the first roadblock popping out. The soldiers stood around and on top of the bags with sand, holding weapons, smoking, and laughing.
It felt safe to be around them. Yet I was constantly looking up. It was like any moment there could be another rocket or fighter plane — and what are we about to do here? In the field. Inside the insane traffic full of scared people trying to get out of the city…
Just look at the fields, I thought. Memorize the landscape.
I wanted to paint the fields of Ukraine for months by that time. The idea was practically haunting me. Minimalistic landscapes of dark patchy fields and solemn distant trees, the side roads, the soil. I wanted to soak them in and then just pour them out on rice paper with the black Chinese ink.
Just look at the fields. This would be the long road, there would be plenty.
We finally left Kyiv at nightfall. It was around 5 p.m. when we saw the sign ‘Kyiv’ crossed out. Almost 10 hours to pass three subway stations. Almost 10 hours to cover 10 kilometers. 10 hours. It looked like a mad joke. Even at the most awful times the whole way from Kyiv to Rivne took 6 hours top, given you’d be stuck in traffic in the city for two of them.
It took us 10 hours to get out of Kyiv. The road home had only just begun.
It was getting darker and darker outside, so when we got to the actual fields I couldn’t see a thing. Nastya put on the earphones and started listening to the online news, covering the day and making forecasts for the future.
“They say it won’t take more than three days,” she said, taking off one of her earphones. “They say the Russian army can’t fight. Their weapons are old. Look at the photos, they captured some of them — no armor, no helmets, nothing, they’re like hobos.”
“They say the Russians went on military exercises. My god, these idiots didn’t even know where they were going!”
“Yeah, like crossing the border of the other country wasn’t obvious, right?” I said in outrage.
“Wanna join? I’ll send you the link.”
I shook my head no. I won’t put the earphones, I thought. I have to hear everything that’s outside… Just in case.
“We would need to gas up the car soon,” I heard the driver say. Was he talking to me? It sounded like he wasn’t even aware somebody else was there in the car.
We passed gas stations one by one — each crammed with hundreds of cars waiting in line. One by one. People were going out of the cars, buying tea, coffee, and hot dogs. I saw women holding kids, dogs, and husbands’ hands. I saw cars breaking down in the middle of the road — and immediately two or three other cars pulled over to help.
I felt happy. I was so proud. These were my people. People of my country. They were not bumping each other trying to cut the line or get ahead. They were not closing the stores or gas stations. They were not raising the prices for gas and food. They were not leaving others in need on the road. I wanted to cry. I held it inside.
“Almost out of gas,” said the driver.
Nastya suddenly took off one of the earphones and turned to me. “I need the restroom.”
“We’ll be pulling over soon. He says we are almost out of gas.”
We passed gas stations one by one. The first, the second, the third, the fourth, the fifth.
“Why won’t he stop?” Nastya asked.
“I guess they don’t have gas at the stations.”
The traffic moved slowly. The car barely sped at 20 kilometers per hour. I kept losing patience.
“Look, the gas stations on the other side of the road are almost empty. Can’t we stop by?” I asked. I needed the restroom, too. I needed to get out and stretch my back — it hurt badly. I needed air.
“No,” the driver answered. “It would take us another hour to get back in line.”
I nodded. The outside was quiet and it was getting darker and darker. After the sun went down the heat faded. I felt like my body was burning. Like a colony of ants started to slowly cover my feet and arms. It was burning and itching and I couldn’t get away from it.
My god, when would he pull over?
When would we get out?
Photo provided by the author.