Damn him. Misha had been there all her life. She had never known a day when he wasn’t a cry away from running to her aid to make sure she was still breathing or to pick her up if she’d fallen down or to bash some wolf in the nose who thought he could take advantage of her.
But he wasn’t there this night, when she needed him most. Damn him all to hell.
Hanah had slipped out of the house, telling her mother that she was going to a neighbor’s house around the corner. She could get that far on her own – everybody knew that. Even so, her mother had asked her to wait for Misha to come home. Hanah already knew that wasn’t going to happen. Her mother still refused to accept that reality. So Hanah had assured her mother that it was just around the corner and then she gingerly worked her way down from the porch, counted the steps to the sidewalk and turned left.
She sensed her friend’s house by the smell, stopped and stomped around until she found the walkway leading up to her friend’s porch. Before she got there, she heard her friend ask, “Why don’t you use a white cane?” She asked this question every time Hanah went to her house.
Hanah usually dismissed the question with something like, “They make too much noise,” or, “I don’t really need one.” That last part was true, mostly because Misha was always there to escort her where she needed to go. When they were younger, they would practice running through the park. He would tell her, “Listen to my feet. Keep in cadence with me. Keep your head up. Trust me.” And so she had learned to run so that she no longer needed him except to tell her when she needed to change direction. Then she learned to jump. “On three,” he would say. “One…two…three!” and she would plant her feet on the ground and leap forward, his hand gently guiding her back to the ground so she wouldn’t fall down. It had taken even longer, but she had learned how to jump on her own, too.
Thinking about all of that, Hanah felt a bitterness rising up in her throat. So, she just said, “Let’s go. I want to get there early.”
Her friend didn’t say anything for a moment and then Hanah heard her friend’s footsteps as she descended the porch and walked towards her. Hanah’s friend grabbed her hand and laced thin ribbons around her fingers. When she let go, Hanah felt a slight tug upwards.
“What’s this?” she asked.
“Balloons. Yellow and blue balloons.” Hanah remembered that Misha had told her yellow was the color of the sun. She could lift her face to the sky and feel the warmth of the sun, so she knew what yellow felt like. But what did the color blue feel like? She didn’t know what blue felt like, so she couldn’t distinguish it from any other color. It was a color on the flag of Ukraine. It was an idea, nothing more.
Then her friend put a stiff card in her hand. Hanah felt along its edges, then realized what she was supposed to do with it. She held it in front of her, not knowing if the writing was on the front or back, upside down or upright. “What does it say?” she asked.
“Nothing. It’s blank.”
“Because they can’t arrest you for saying nothing, but everyone will know what it means.” Hanah furled her brow. She would rather have the card say something definitive and with ink.
Her friend grabbed her hand and led Hanah towards Red Square.
They walked along quickly and soon Hanah felt people brushing up against them as they worked their way into a crowd. Hanah started to feel as if she were lost in an ocean rather than walking through a crowd on Zhitnitskaya Uitsa. She could feel a vague sense of panic rising up in her as the mood grew agitated and the shouts from people grew louder and more frequent. She knew this was because she was being led by her friend, who asked why she didn’t have a white cane, instead of Misha, the man who had taught her to run and jump in the park.
At last they stopped at the edge of the street. Men and women strung out on either side of them yelled out plaintive protests against the war. They were random and disorganized, but they were frequent and sincere.
“Hold your sign up, Hanah,” her friend said.
“Oh, right.” Hanah grasped the card with both hands and proudly held it in front of her chest, still wishing it said something. And then it occurred to her she still had a voice. So Hanah yelled, “нет войне.”
Her friend gasped and grabbed Hanah’s wrist. “No,” she hissed. “This is why I gave you the blank card. Stay quiet so they don’t have a reason to arrest you.”
Hanah turned her face towards her friend, hoping she was looking back at her, and said, “How am I supposed to say anything if I don’t say anything?”
She yanked her arm from her friend’s grasp and held her card up high. “нет войне,” she yelled. And then again. After just a few seconds, the woman next to her joined in and then another. And then another, until the street was filled with the chorus of a simple plea.
Hanah could sense immediately the man who ran up to stand in front of her. She also knew immediately that he was not a protestor. He smelled of leather, thick plastic and gun oil. She yelled even louder even though something inside her told her to keep quiet. She jutted her sign out in front of her; and felt her knuckles brush up against the thick synthetic of a black Rosgvadiya vest. She had barely touched the man, and unintentionally, but she would later learn that it was enough to add ten years to her sentence.
She flinched when the card was ripped from her hands and gruff fingers untwined the balloons from her wrist. She knew better, but Hanah couldn’t help the quickening burn of rage in her chest. She jutted her fists out until they found the vest again and then she turned them sideways and started pummeling the man.
Then, she felt her shoulders burn as two agents grabbed her hands, pulled them behind her back and cinched them together with a zip-tie.
She heard the strained voice from her friend as they were both pushed to the ground so that they had to turn their heads to keep their faces from grinding against the street. “I told you, Hanah. I told you.”
But Hanah knew it wouldn’t have made any difference. She could smell it in the air: these were people who were looking for any excuse to arrest people and silence them. Another set of hands pulled her roughly to her feet and shoved her from behind. Hanah stumbled a few feet and then tripped and fell back to the ground.
Her voice no longer under her control, she called out, “Misha!”
The hands picked her back up, shoved her again and sent her sprawling to the ground once more. “Misha!”
“Don’t,” her friend said. “She’s -” But Hanah heard the sick fleshy smack of a hand against her friend’s face before she could finish.
Hanah stumbled along, the hands shoving her more gently so that she didn’t fall down, but still insisting she move forward. Her foot bumped a tire and Hanah jutted her forehead forward until it found the cool thin metal of the white van with blue lights. She leaned against it, panting.
She yelled out one more time, “Misha!”
Then somebody grabbed her and threw her into the van, her body colliding into other people lying on its floor. The door slid closed with a firm metallic thump and the air inside the van grew thick, the noise from protestors outside now muffled. Already, she could hear their voices dwindling and the faint sound of feet running away.
Hanah bowed her head and finally allowed herself to sob.
©2022 Michael J Lawrence