The light this morning is almost the same as on the day Nadia thought she was destined to lose Kolya forever. November, trees shedding leaves—that odd inclination to strip layers just before winter’s cold clamp, as though a reminder of how vulnerable humans are in comparison, how fragile and short-lived.
From where she lies in bed Nadia watches Kolya lean against the stained porcelain sink in their flat’s cabinet-sized bathroom, sees him splash cold water on his face until his skin burns pink beneath his dark stubble. Under the flow of water she hears a song in his throat, imagines the vibration beneath the scar on his neck. Where shrapnel once drove just shy of his jugular there is now music, this habit of humming something strange Kolya acquired from the frontlines in Donetsk—one small gain, Nadia supposes, to measure against the loss, a pebble tossed into the void.
More, according to Kolya.
“At least I got away with my head,” he said when they first reunited, when the shock of seeing him nearly killed Nadia in turn. She can still picture him standing before the dust-streaked military truck: chin lifted at a proud jaunt, crooked finger pointing at his collar of bandages, directing her attention up, up here, away—a new mission of distraction to which he now seems duty-bound.
You don’t need both legs to sing, and so her once stoic Kolya—as tone-deaf as the babushkas who shout hymns in Kobylenskya Cathedral—now drops into song throughout the day: songs from his youth or songs from the radio, sometimes even an American song, the English tripping off his tongue, imagined bass notes bobbing his head.
You don’t need both legs to write, and so Kolya pens letters to the Ministry of Wounded Warriors, to the Ministry of Glory to the Heroes, to the Ministry of Disabled Veterans, to the Ministry of Retributions—all equally unlikely to exist, the addresses supposed by Nadia to be mere bureaucratic attempts at appeasement, the letters, she argues, only serving to stoke some politician’s literal fire. No matter to Kolya, who only asks for more paper.
You don’t need both legs to be a craftsman, and so as soon as he was able Kolya returned to his trade, daring anyone to comment on the absurdity of a man with one leg spending his days surrounded by piles of shoes. His hands carefully complete repairs despite the tremor—this, another of his soldier’s souvenirs. He dares commentary and rejects sympathy not by a grim set to his jaw or a hooded gaze—characteristics Nadia knew him capable of, before—but by his insistence on aptitude. In the shop below their apartment, he arranges fixed shoes upon the counter in neat pairs for customers to collect, left and right, left and right, 280 hryvni passed over as payment but never pity, bring that near him and only then see the fight return to his eyes.
But he suffers, Nadia knows. She thinks of this now, again, when from the bedroom in the half-light she watches Kolya prepare to shave and cut his hair, a razor and rusted scissors lying on the lip of the sink. His atrophied body, propped on crutches, presses against the porcelain basin for balance as he lathers his face. His humming is now huge, filling the space between them. It arcs into a higher pitch and cuts the still air. When he reaches for the razor
Nadia sits up in bed, the sweat-stained duvet slipping down her body, cold air rushing in. You don’t need two legs for everything, but for this—
“Don’t,” Nadia says.
She is rising now, feet brushing the grimy bedroom floorboards, the cracked bathroom tiles; she is beside him in four steps.
The humming stops. Water continues flushing down the drain, clear and cold, wasted. The look in Kolya’s eyes when he turns to her is not angry, not yet, just curious, as though confused about what she could possibly mean. It is an open, innocent expression. It is a face she remembers. He turned to her with an expression not dissimilar on the day she thought she was destined to lose him forever.
That was the day her colleagues passed a hat to raise money so Kolya could buy boots for the war. The other professors in the English Philology Department greeted Nadia that chilled morning with grim faces and a plate of homemade perishkes, the delicate dough still carrying enough lingering warmth from the oven to seem slightly damp.
How had her colleagues known that less than twenty-four hours earlier Kolya found his summons in the postbox, resting beside the blue envelope from his uncle in Kyiv congratulating him on their engagement? How had her colleagues known perishkes were Nadia’s favorite, the way the sweet cream cut between her teeth with each bite? For Oksana two months before it had been apricot kolacki. That was back when fruit was in season, when the markets billowed with color and scents and barking dogs, when it seemed the draft would never turn its spotlight gaze upon their small city. Back then it seemed an unthinkable fate for any of them, certainly for Oksana’s near-sighted Ihor—the first to be called east to confront the Russians.
On that day someone’s battered ushanka, balding along its fur flaps, circled hand-to-hand through the department—below shelved texts that had outlived other wars and pogroms, beneath Christmas lights hanging in the frosted glass windows—the hat growing heavy with coins not easily spared. Snow would come soon; Kolya was leaving. Nadia remembers the particular pain of it all, the irony of the ask—the way it made Kolya seem incapable and doomed from the start: Yes, no really, even the cobbler can’t afford the steel-toed footwear needed for the frontlines. As it was, the government made a similar claim, corruption a steady drain on any funds to outfit soldiers.
“Let me help,” Nadia tells Kolya now, but there is hardly space for two people in the tiny bathroom.
The bulb hanging from the ceiling casts tapered shadows that spangle the bare walls. Nadia cannot bear the thought of the rusted blade against Kolya’s neck, unsteady in his oversized hands. She cannot watch him struggle with this sharpness. Kolya’s eyes find hers in the mirror. The two of them stand framed together in the fragile glass, she thin-faced with a worried mouth, he like a wisp of smoke with flint at its center, vulnerable but still volatile within.
“Please,” she says. It is both a question and a statement.
The doctors in Donbass who performed the amputation in a field hospital were not the best—in moments of rage, Nadia imagines Kolya with his thick needle and sinew thread doing better. But there hadn’t been time to spare; there hadn’t been money to spare—there was nothing left to collect, anyway, among the bombed-out houses lining Europe’s eastern border, a boundary that shifted and shivered day-by-day. Sometimes Nadia watches Kolya working in the shop and wonders: The boot bought with the pooled money of nineteen people—what ever became of it?
And the leg? There are now questions between them that can never be spoken.
Nadia moved in with Kolya when he was discharged due to injury. It was a promise, she swore. It was not out of pity. They will still marry in five months, make everything official. But what of her future? Her hopes of raising a family in the country? The dreams and possibilities that once dwelled within her, now forced to evacuate—what have become of those? Perhaps, she reasons, they’ve fled to a parallel universe and taken up with another life, one where the shoe was found and there was a foot to which it fit. Or perhaps the story in that alternate dimension is different: the larger piece of shrapnel arcing high instead of low, stealing not a leg but a life.
Some days Nadia feels a desire, rising like bile, to be cruel to Kolya for the fate they were allotted: nudge his crutches out of reach, leave the house at the precise time of day when he needs help with the stairs. There are moments in bed when she could preserve his dignity but doesn’t, allowing his embarrassment to occupy the air between them like a third body. There are even days when she feels hatred toward him, a flash of bright anger striking through her thoughts. Only after Kolya fell hard one afternoon—his broken body sprawled in their kitchen, the sound of scraping metal as he used his crutch to strain back up—did Nadia feel a slice of cold panic and realize the true name of her rage. She is angry at Kolya because she is afraid. She is angry at Kolya because she nearly lost him, and she loves him, and she is desperately afraid that he still might die.
Kolya’s smile, when it finally arrives, is weak and lopsided in the bathroom mirror, granting reluctant permission for Nadia to assist with the razor. His wet eyes crinkle up along with his lifted lips, and for a moment she is horrified to think that he might cry.
“Just this once,” he agrees. “And maybe my hair? Can’t have customers thinking less of me for long hair.”
He speaks of the future like there will always be one. But she’s heard the way his humming is getting louder, his pen scratching more furiously into the night, his forehead bright with sweat when he does something as simple as resole a pair of dress shoes. In his sleep the music gives way altogether and becomes moaning. He rarely lets Nadia get a glimpse of his leg, but she feels its heat at night, can almost sense its throbbing redness in the dark. She should insist he visit a good doctor, ensure proper treatment this time. She should sell the furniture, find the money, beg, barter, steal. She should do everything possible, but what is possible now seems so small.
“Thank you” is all she tells him—him, her fiancé still.
She slips behind him, his frame so thin the movement is easier than anticipated. Closer now, she is startled to find that Kolya’s eyes are yellowish, unwell, and after this she can no longer meet his gaze in the mirror. She reaches for the razor and begins pulling it in efficient strokes along his square jaw. The room is quiet save for the tiny scratching of small hairs. Afterward she rinses his chin with a towel and uncovers another smile for her, there on those lips that once asked for her hand, the gold band glistening in its box. She feels the heat of him again, pressed against her body. She feels the tremor.
When Nadia starts in on Kolya’s hair with the scissors, she realizes how long it’s really gotten, almost leonine, falling over his defiant, watchful face. That some part of such a subtracted man still fiercely grows fills her throat with a sudden ache. He laughs when she holds up a damp section of his hair to make the first cut.
“Some people dream all their lives of owning a fur coat,” he says, speaking of the wealthy who borrow the bodies of the dead to stay warm.
She smiles tightly before bending his head forward with the gentle press of two fingers, touching the fine down along his nape. The first clump of hair takes a long time to fall to the floor. The back of his neck is pale, increasingly revealed, the scar the shrapnel cut as slim as the divide between what is and what almost was.