Cosmonaut by Darya Tsymbalyuk

It’s strange to be back after all these years. It’s the city I never loved. I did not miss it at all. I never miss places I once lived in. In the end, I always wanted to leave. No idea what made me come back this time. Why am I going? Cutting the steppe in two halves the train dives into an exhausted breath of grass, which lost its colour under a scorching sun. Something warms up inside of me. I pull a hedgehog out of an inner pocket of my jeans jacket. It is waking up, stretching its paws. I place the hedgehog on a little train table, offer it a waffle. A field after a field passes outside. Maybe I’ve missed the smell of sagebrush. I am 10, and we walk along the river, picking up sagebrush. Moth can’t tolerate its smell. I don’t really understand how a small moth can eat mom’s fur coat, as well as my fur hat with two pom poms (which I always mistakenly called bum-bu-lons). I like sagebrush, it is soft and silverish.  It has an odd bitterish smell. Extending my arm, I tickle your cheek with a sprig. You brush it off. I tickle you again. You manage to escape me, I’m following you, you are running, I am trying to catch up, almost, extending my arm, ‘ve touched your neck, you are laughing, I am laughing, we are laughing, down, down, down, faster, away from sagebrush, with sagebrush, straight into the river.

I don’t know why, all of a sudden, I decided to come back. Better not to expect anything in order not to be disappointed later. Even better not to think at all. Not to think. To watch the horizon. Poplars are cloves on a hair comb, lined in a row. One is taller, the other one is shorter, taller, shorter, taller – it’s a poplar rhythm. Train wheels clatter. Ta-da-ta-da. Poplars. Taller, shorter, ta-da, ta-da. A smell of sagebrush. Maybe I should have come back earlier? Maybe I should have written at least once? I’ve written eleven letters to you. Do you remember how we always dreamt to climb a baobab? I don’t know how to climb trees anymore. We are sitting on a thick branch of an apricot tree. Nobody can see us behind its heavy foliage. Surprised, people start turning their heads, as they hear our voices. “Wouldn’t be great to live on a baobab tree instead of an apartment?” Has the baobab leaf I sent you reached you?

The train station grew older. I am greeted by 15 dogs. 15 dogs with 15 identical pair of eyes. Once a splendid building of the train station is in a worse condition than I remember it. Inside, in a corner, there is a woman dozing, embracing her checkered bag. A black kitten has perched on a window sill. The train station. To leave. To leave, to leave, away. The market is almost over, it is 3 pm. Farmers bring fruits and vegetables from distant villages. They wake up in the middle of the night, get on a dusty old train and spend several hours on their way to the city. Homemade cheese, cream, sunflower oil, apples, chicken. “Pears for half a price! Come get some pears, I have to rush for the train!”. They collect things that did not get sold, fold little chairs they use for sitting, go to the platform. Plastic bags, driven by the wind, follow the farmers. Stray dogs follow them too. “Would you take me with you? Would you have something I could eat?” An old train arrives. Farmers leave. Dogs see them off, standing on the platform, staring with their eternally sorrowful eyes.

A tram is a ship that got lost ashore. Local trams always felt like giant boats with wide promenade decks. Their wheels clatter along the streets which lost their importance long time ago. Main streets, with supermarkets, kiosks and advertisements dominating everything, stayed somewhere behind. From both sides of the tram there are trees, short trees, as they usually are in the South. Everything tries to get closer to the underground coolness, to hear the water in a well. Somewhere near the river there is a plant. I’ve never been there, and ‘ve never seen it with my own eyes, but I always knew that it was there and that the city grew around it. When I was little, I imagined it as a giant mysterious beast, which lied on the shore. Ships were sailing off directly from its mouth. From the tram, I can see your window on the second floor and a balcony with an old broken guitar. Inside – there is your new favourite guitar, on a wall, near the window. I ask you to play a song for me, but you get embarrassed for some reason. “I am sorry, I don’t know why, but it is hard to play it for you”. You turn your head to the window, one can hear tram wheels clattering behind it. There is a big oily stain on a wall. “Where is this stain from?” “I don’t know…” “Maybe you could pin a map over it?” “I also thought about it… Then decided to leave it. Perhaps I got used to it, maybe even learned to love it…”

It’s evening on the Buh river. The beach is completely empty. A nude elderly woman is coming out of the water. There is a bridge behind her, cars are passing. The city is buzzing. Lights are lit on the other shore, in the centre. A silhouette of a woman sinks into the darkness of the water in a part of the river, which is out of reach for lantern reflections. The woman walks slowly: a wave that decided to step ashore. There used to be an old soviet metal umbrella on this very spot, we used to sit under it. You wrote me a letter when these umbrellas finally got dismantled or just taken away for scrap. “I told you they could fly. They finally returned to their planet.” I lean back on the grass, which is dry, burnt by the sun, pricking. It’s high tide. I dip my toes into the river. A propeller of a rusty beach umbrella is buzzing and spinning above me, it is about to take off. “Are you ready for a space journey?” “Depends which planet we are going to” “I suggest a planet where each stray dog has an owner” “Is it a happy planet then?” “Maybe. Also, farmers always manage to sell their pears and cheese there”. The umbrella spins and takes off. A night sky with first stars stretches out in front of me. It’s time to go home.

I walk through a park to a tram stop. “Good evening, trees. Do you remember Margarita Vasilyevna’s hands, which planted you after the war?” I see an old Ferris wheel in front of me, get closer. One of the cabins approaches the ground and freezes for a second. A door opens, I get inside. “Zhen’ka, is that you? I can hardly recognise you! You did manage to lose weight in the end.” In the darkness I manage to recognise a face of my former classmate. Don’t really know what to answer. “Are you here for long? How come you are back?” “For a day, on business” “So where are you now? How is it going? Working hard?” “Yeah, somehow…” “Planning to visit us with a tour?” “Ah, well, I am busy with something else at the moment” “What? Did you quit piano?” an angry face of my music teacher emerges from the darkness. His hair is disheveled just like Beethoven’s on a portrait which used to hang in his office, right above him. As if I was judged by the two of them at the same time: my teacher and Beethoven. “I always said that you are of a weak character… weak character. You gotta be harsher, have sharper teeth!” “Alexander Viktorovich, I…” The wheel is spinning. Fear comes upon me. “Maybe we shouldn’t? I mean, it is so old…” “Oh, come on! It’s going be OK” – it’s my classmate once again. “Do you remember how we climbed an old airplane at night? Why did you turn back then? Got scared?” “I don’t know… Maybe I did get scared…” “Ignatyuk, you still haven’t learned how to speak clearly!” – I shudder from the voice of Tatiana Aleksandrovna. She looks at me through her glasses. Her hair style has not changed: burgundy colour, ridiculous perm. The wheel is spinning. I don’t feel well. I look down, at the floor. I am wearing sneakers. I remember girls laughing at me during my fencing class: “Hahaha, have you bought those sneakers before war?” My trousers are always too big for my waist, I try to fix them with an elastic band. I don’t know where to put my hands. Dad shouts at me so that I stop slouching. The cabin is spinning.

I am finally writing a letter to you. “You know, after all these years I understood something important. It is way easier to believe in somebody else’s idea, fight for human and animal rights, than to believe in oneself.” After two weeks I receive a postcard with an answer: “Ferris wheel will be dismantled. Come back”. We go for our last ride on the wheel. The river opens its arms and embraces the city underneath. “Do you really want to leave?” “Yes.” “Why?” “This city is too small for me, like last year’s shoes.” “Where do you want to go then?” “Haven’t decided yet.” “Is it really that bad here?” Was it really that bad here? I step from the wheel to the ground, and just as I’m walking away, the wheel rolls right into the river, into the water, drowning. There was nothing. There was no postcard, no last ride, no farewell. Only a patch of asphalt. Yarrows in the asphalt cracks. A small plastic figurine. I pick it up. It’s a cosmonaut in a spacesuit. My grandma was in Moscow, when Gagarin landed. She told me that it was a very happy day. Everybody cried tears of joy. There was an incredible state of hope, of certainty, for once everything seemed possible, the Universe opened itself to us.

They built a huge supermarket on a tram stop. There used to be an acacia alley here before, a part of the park, which was planted by Margarita Vasilyevna. If you lie down on the asphalt, you still can hear how the park of cut trees rustles beneath. I’ve sent you nothing in the end. After all, our letters are addressed to ourselves. Then, I always lacked faith… perhaps. A year ago I received a letter from you. Twelve dried acacia twigs, one for each year, in memory of our little eccentricity to swallow acacia flowers, tender like bubbles on warm milk. My tram arrives. I take a sit next to a window, which is slightly open. There is no smell of acacia. There is no smell of sagebrush. There were no letters. Everything is fiction, myth, illusion. In the end we see what we want to see. I buy a ticket. Count the number on it: 7 plus 2 plus 8 equals 17. 9 plus 5 plus 5 also equals 17. A lucky ticket. So, I will be happy? I pass the bridge, decide to get off earlier and walk a bit. I am crossing a small old chestnut park. There is a new fountain. Stray dogs, like many years ago, are sleeping under chestnut trees. Lantern light shines through the leaves and falls on the ground dramatically. My eyes get watery because of the wind. I am looking for dreams of years long gone in passers-by, who are walking towards me. Something is not quite right. Some kind of unfamiliar pudginess, a stretch, heaviness. I return to your home. There is light in your window. Looking for cigarettes in my pocket, I realize I lost the cosmonaut figurine.


Darya writes short stories, paints and works with community based art projects (you can see some of her visual work here She received her BA degree from Kenyon College (OH, USA) in 2009 and is now studying for her Master’s “Crossways in Cultural Narratives” in the University of St Andrews (Scotland).