The sirens had wailed intermittently for the past three days. But this morning, the sound seeped
in with an uncanny urgency. The acrid smell of diesel fumes and burning rubber in the air
pierced my nostrils. The loud booms it seemed, were coming closer so that the walls in my
apartment shook and the plates in the kitchen and knickknacks on the shelves rattled. Olena,
Sergei and the children had left yesterday. But I stayed behind after insisting they must leave.
And they left. No sense dragging these 92-year-old bones any further.
The knocks on my door were incessant. I heard urgent footsteps outside. Along with the fist
pounding came pleading sounds.
We must leave now, Yakiv! Now! Meet us at the square by St. Catherine. It was Lev, my
schoolboy friend, and I could sense the angst in his voice. I noticed snowflakes melting into
sooty droplets on the glass as they struck and slid down my front window.
I had hoped that Olena, Sergei and the grandchildren were safe and near the Hungarian border.
There was little to lose now. But Lev, he needed me, and he sounded desperate. I pulled a canvas
rucksack from under the bed and decided to take a few things. Things I would not let them take,
not at least while I was alive. And maybe things to sustain us for a couple of days.
I took three small cameo frames of photos, one of my parents, another of our wedding day, and
the third of Sergei and his family. I wrapped these inside two wool socks of my dear Daryna. I
placed these in the sack. I had kept my dear wife’s blue and yellow socks after 60 years of our togetherness. She had dyed and knit the wool for them after I brought her to Kherson as a young
bride from her home in Labinsk, Russia. I remember how she always kept her feet warm in bed
with those socks, insisting they would remind her that she was now Ukranian. Sometimes in the
night my feet would search for the feel of the wool and the soles of her feet in the darkness, as I
would reach with my leg and touch her feet just so lightly, not to awaken her, but to know that
she was there.
Was there anything else? I had no passport. I had no intention of leaving my homeland. But I
took an extra sweater and placed it in the sack, just in case. It had begun to snow heavily by now.
The booms out in the street seemed louder and closer, and now the sky had turned dark, clouds
of blackish grey smoke obscured the sunlight. The emergency siren kept blaring. I must go, for
fear that Lev may be in harm’s way.
I filled a thermos with coffee I had brewed the night before. I also took some kovbasa for us,
rolled it into a sheet of wax paper and wrapped a three-day-old loaf of black bread in newspaper
and put these in the sack.
Then there was Miro, our little taksa dog. He was now fourteen years old and grey around the
snout. Eyes were opalescent and blank since he went blind three years ago. It was the year my
Daryna died. Miro was deaf and now could barely smell even the fresh smoky smell of kovbasa
which he loved so much since the day we found him on the muddy banks of the Dnieper,
shivering and wet, nearly dead, several years ago. What to do with Miro? He slept almost 22
hours a day in his little wooden crate that I had built for him. Surely he would not survive this
ordeal. I thought about leaving him. Perhaps a quick end, a collapse of the building from a harsh
blast would have been merciful. He would never know what hit him. Perhaps. But I would miss
Then there was a blast and the front window shattered in a crash of glass, concrete and metal. It
was as if a car had smashed into my front wall. The ceiling started to crack and sheets of plaster
began to fall on my head, along with dust and debris powdering my face and arms.
So I emptied the contents I had packed onto the floor, walked towards the hearth by the kitchen
and lifted little Miro into my arms. I wrapped the little dog in my sweater, placed him inside the
sack and slung the strap over my neck. As I opened the front door, I could hear the familiar
crunching sound of a tank approaching from up the street. I barely made out the marked “Z” on
the side of the vehicle through the heavy smoke and snow. Russians. Here. Now.
I prayed for Lev, stepped back inside, and listened for the approaching vehicle to get closer. I
could hear the metallic crunch of the caterpillar tracks of the Boyevaya Mashina Pekhoty on the cobblestones, now probably two houses down from mine. I slid the bag with Miro towards my
back and reached for the fire bottle by the door. I strapped it under my belt, its oily wick
protruding from the cork like a cloth umbilicus. Then I struck a match and waited before opening
my door for one last time.
Ricardo Gonzalez-Rothi was born in Cuba and came as a teenager to the United States. He grew up in New Jersey and then attended Cornell University where he earned a degree in Biology. He later graduated from New York University School of Medicine. An academic physician and scientific writer for several decades Ricardo’s latest endeavor is creative writing. He has had his fiction, creative non-fiction and poetry featured in Acentos Review, Biostories, Foliate Oak, Lunch Ticket, Chest, The Bellingham Review, Hispanic Culture Review and others. His website is https://gonzalezrothiauthor.com/
Ricardo is also an accomplished photographer. For a look at his award winning images, go to gonzalezrothiphoto.wordpress.com