Translated from the Ukrainian by Reilly Costigan-Humes and Isaac Stackhouse Wheeler. “The Escape” was published in Andriy Lyubka’s 2016 book of short fiction “A Room For Sorrow”. This is the first story by the author ever to be published in the English language.
Nobody had stopped for a solid hour. The man could have easily made it a third of the way in the time he’d been waiting, but he just kept standing by the side of the road, holding a handwritten sign displaying the words Novi Sad. It looked like rain.
Serhiy fished a plastic poncho from the bottom of his enormous backpack — it was its weight that discouraged him from making the trek on foot — and considered the road snaking between hills and trees, his gaze still hopeful. Desolation. A blissful place of tranquility and serenity. It’d probably always been like this, that had to be why monks and hermits settled here almost eight hundred years ago, eventually turning Fruška Gora into a profoundly sacred place for Orthodox Serbs. This mountain range looked as though it had been deliberately designed, the way it rose high in the middle of an endless flatland that rivalled the Eurasian steppe. That whole expanse had once been covered by the Pannonian Sea, when Fruška Gora was an island surrounded by the murmur of its waves. It is in those unusual places that people invariably build important structures — fortresses or castles. The Serbs raised three dozen monasteries along this range, and they were also citadels, in a way — after the Ottomans conquered the area and enslaved the locals, they became bastions of Christianity and Serbian culture.
Nowadays, Fruška Gora is famed for these sanctums, as well as the vineyards that inundate the southern slopes. A few bunches of white grapes he had picked there were the only provisions Serhiy had in his pack. If he’d had any more substantial food with him, he would have set up camp and passed a calm, quiet night somewhere in the highlands and then shoved off in the morning. But he didn’t — hunger had been whittling him down mercilessly for the past two days, so he decided to head for Novi Sad, the closest large city, where Caritas or the Red Cross would give him shelter and a warm bowl of soup. The utterly black clouds clumping together at the rim of his vision made the idea of sleeping in his tent even less appealing.
He could always try imposing himself on one of the monasteries, but he couldn’t stomach the humiliation involved. Frankly, bewitched as he was by Fruška Gora’s peculiar beauty, those vaunted monasteries rubbed him the wrong way. It’s not as though they were banal or ugly. Quite the contrary — the medieval architecture was fantastically well preserved and the vividness of the frescos caressed his sight as though the hand of some anonymous master had drawn them on the churches’ cold, rough-hewn stones just yesterday, not five centuries ago. But the most essential thing was missing. It had deserted them long ago — that sense of genuine holiness, that joyous feeling that you are encountering the transcendental, that you are in a place where you really could have a conversation with God. When you get right down to it, his hostility might have had more to do with his pitifully empty wallet; the sight of tourist traps — where absolutely everything, from the bathroom to the spring water, costs money — would inevitably sour his mood. When he had visited one of the monasteries only to be asked to buy a ticket, because that house of God was also a museum, he left in a huff. When he saw believers paying for candles and prayer cards and sending coins ringing into donation boxes every time they kissed an icon, anger and disgust consumed him. “They wouldn’t let Jesus in — he was flat broke, after all”, the man thought to himself.
So, he stepped out onto the road and tried flagging down a car heading towards Novi Sad. He’d been hitchhiking for over a week now; most of the time, there was no shortage of chatty drivers who were more than happy to pick him up. Only once, in Hungary, did a stout man with a moustache try shaking him down at the end of the ride, but Serhiy pretended he didn’t know what was going on, flashed the driver a wide smile, thanked him in English, picked up his backpack, and went on his merry way. Now he’d been sitting there like a bump on a log for a good hour. Hardly any cars had passed, though — a dozen, at best. Maybe that was because today was a Thursday, and it was only on weekends that the ardent throngs of believers came this way.
Meanwhile, the rain, shrouding the sky in heavy, black blankets, had escalated from a distant prospect to a real threat. The wind had cut loose, lashing everything around him so brazenly that it erased any doubt — there was going to be torrential rain, thunder, and lightning. The weather had changed so drastically that it erased the fair afternoon skies — what remained was frigid, dark, and disquieting. Early October is known the world over for such caprices. Serhiy didn’t want to get all wet, and he was even more concerned about the backpack that contained all of his things. When you don’t know where you’re going to sleep that night or whether you’re going to sleep at all, you’d better make sure you stay warm and dry.
A blue car tore past without even slowing down; the driver didn’t spare one glance for the lonely traveler with his handwritten sign. “I doubt anybody’s gonna stop now. The sky could explode into torrents of rain any minute, I’d better take cover before it’s too late”, he thought uneasily. The man didn’t have all that many options, so he tossed his backpack over his shoulder and trudged back towards the monastery he’d visited just two hours ago. He’d wait out the storm there, in the church, and then get right back on the road and hitch a ride to Novi Sad.
The place was called Krušedol; it was one of Fruška Gora’s most significant monasteries, since several Serbian kings and patriarchs were buried there. Although it was one of the hottest tourist attractions in the area, the monastery’s grounds gaped empty. Serhiy entered through the gate, surveyed his surroundings, satisfied himself that there was nobody else in the vicinity, and forged on towards the church. Constructed five hundred years ago, it had an atemporal, eternal feel to it. It looked so astonishingly natural that it was impossible to imagine its stones dispersed and disassociated from one another; they were all created to conjoin in this manifestation of architectural ingenuity and simplicity. The man stepped into the church, crossed himself, and settled into one of the pews in the third row from the back, placing his pack off to the side. It was empty and quiet, almost unsettlingly so. Dim light streamed off the candles in throbbing waves; the gaunt and elongated faces of the saints in the frescos were focused and exalted. The whole space had a moldy smell which the monks had tried to mask with incense and myrtle.
All alone in the church, Serhiy finally felt the presence of something sacred; this place had acquired a different, deeper aspect, devoid now of all the commonday hustle and bustle and the monks extending their hands for donations. The man lifted his head and looked up at the dome; God, young and beautiful, looked down at him with huge eyes, an enormous, black chain hanging out of His nose, crashing down into a round chandelier adorned with twelve candelabras roughly six feet above his head. “It’s like a nose ring”, Serhiy thought. “Medieval style”.
The man didn’t like that downward gaze, perhaps because it suggested voyeurism. Serhiy grabbed his backpack and moved up to the front row. Now he could get a closer look at the altar and the ancient, wooden iconostas. A half hour passed, and the man kept staring ahead, his gaze shifting from one bible scene to the next, as though they were frames from some action-packed thriller. Now that there were no distractions, his awareness grew deeper and broader. Suddenly, the man realized that this was his first time at Krušedol, although he’d been here just two and a half hours ago. You can only really be somewhere once you’ve cleared your head and started focusing on your own presence there, inside the building’s walls, feeling its cold and its might. He wasn’t here two and a half hours ago; he was in some guidebook — he’d run inside, scanned his surroundings, identified the most noteworthy royal tombs by their plaques, glanced at the old frescos — which were only of interest because they hadn’t faded completely — stopped by the masterfully carved iconostas, and then checked off a box in his mind, as if to say, “I’ve seen the key spots, gotten some pictures, and picked up a souvenir”.
It’s no coincidence that they put those little benches across from paintings in museums. The weary traveler suddenly realized that they’re not just there for elderly people or revered guests to rest on — they’re for contemplation, they’re like stop signs. They say “come to a complete stop, take it all in, look at the arches, mosaics, and icons”. After all, for centuries, churches have been not just houses of prayer but also art galleries that afford the common man an opportunity to see things whose beauty and perfection could prove the existence of God.
He had needed the rain, the barren road, and the strain of travel. “This is marvelous”, Serhiy thought. “I’m forty-three, and this is the first time I’ve stopped running, the first time I’ve stopped to think, feel, and look for meaning. Maybe this really is a holy place, and fate brought me here. Maybe this isn’t just dumb luck”. Filled with deep gratitude, the man considered the main icon resting on an ancient reading stand on the pulpit. Jesus looked tranquil and content, and the softly flickering candles imparted warm and vibrant hues to His face. There was something feminine about His beauty, something in His elongated face, sensual lips, and long hair. Serhiy thought back to his younger years when he flaunted his atheism, telling everyone that he didn’t believe the Almighty could be male, because, in his opinion, the real God had to be a woman; woman is a creator, a giver (of human life, among other things), and a protector, while man, first and foremost, is a destroyer and an aggressor.
At that particular moment, it would have been difficult for him to say whether or not he believed in God. Actually, it would’ve been easy; he would have said something about being agnostic, mistrusting the institution of the Church, and acknowledging that some higher power — nah, it’s not a power, not by any means, because power is aligned with evil — some higher logic exists. That’s how dozens, if not hundreds of millions of people living on this planet would have answered. Serhiy’s own inconsistency tormented him. As a kid, his parents and his environment imposed faith on him, in his youth he was an outspoken atheist, and then after Lesya got sick he turned to God once again. Religion wasn’t just about faith — it became a source of hope, which the doctors couldn’t give him. He strayed once again after his wife’s death, even going so far as to curse God. How could the Lord permit so much suffering and evil? How? Why does he allot evildoers and murderers more years on Earth than humble and honest people?
His wife’s affliction stopped him — stopped him from climbing the corporate ladder, undertaking pointless endeavors, and wasting his time. He should thank her, and no one else, for affording him the opportunity to feel like a man, because the disease eating away at his wife let Serhiy feel someone else’s pain as vaster than his own. As Lesya was gently relinquishing life, he bit his lips and kept repeating his mute prayer: “let her pain pass into me, let her cancer’s omnipresent claws devour me”. That was when he felt how deep Christianity goes: “give me your pain. I’ll suffer for you, because I love you”.
His first reaction to the diagnosis was bewilderment, hers was helplessness. Then Serhiy composed himself within a few seconds, within that short interval commonly described as an eternity, and rushed to his beloved’s aid, trying to overcome her helplessness with his overwhelming desire to fight.
“Everything’s gonna be alright”, he said, embracing her and staring ahead blankly. “Everything’s gonna be alright”, he repeated, without believing what he was saying. “This’ll clear up soon, you’ll see. We’re gonna find you the best doctors, get you into a top-notch clinic, and you’ll be all better in no time. Don’t you worry. Everything’s gonna be alright, my Little Birdie”. They both knew she only had the faintest ghost of a chance, because the cancer had already spread all over; both of them were well aware that there was no way they’d be able to get her a good doctor.
Serhiy did manage to do something about the latter, though. He sold his car and borrowed a boatload of cash from his friends and family. Lesya’s colleagues organized a fundraiser and scraped together a few thousand more. That was enough to cover the first operation. Things got worse when the chemo drugs started battling with the metastasis that took on the semblance of some chimerical coral on the MRI scans. Serhiy mortgaged his apartment without a second thought, and then sold it to someone who wasn’t planning on moving in for another six months — that way he could be sure his wife would never find out. The only possessions he had left after that were his laptop and four spin fishing rods that had no real value, so when it came time to pay for the funeral, Lesya’s parents had to step up. She lay there in the casket, haggard, and as tiny as a withered apple tree; one wanted to believe that the woman’s soul, lithe and weightless, had soared up into the sky, like the Little Birdie she was. He’d always called her that, ever since the day they met.
Stripped of everything and left all alone in the world, Serhiy took stock of his life. He didn’t wind up going back to work; instead, he vanished for a few weeks in the summer with his fishing rods, camping out, moving from one riverbend to the next. After all, he didn’t have a place to live. Forced into reclusion, the man realized that his bitterest regret was not dropping out of the rat race earlier; they lived together, immediately present in each other’s lives, yet somehow absent at the same time — each of them was preoccupied with their own business, running around town on their own tracks. How much time did they really spend together, truly opening up to each other, not just discussing politics or their colleagues? You can’t chase down lost time; it flows all too quickly. Now, Serhiy found himself in a thicker and more unwieldy kind of time. Time no longer moved forward for him, it was frozen in place, dangling on the outer horizon of his life like the yellow soup can of the moon. It was too late to feel true regret and beyond pointless to do anything at all. The idea of committing suicide popped into his mind a few times but the man didn’t rush to act on that impulse, realizing that his aching soul was in the midst of a downward swing, in a state of shock.
The Balkans were a chance to switch his focus to something else and extricate himself from а world where everything reminded him of Lesya. He could no longer walk around the city; he couldn’t ride any buses or go into any stores, because all his thoughts had been reduced to the same questions — had she been here? how’d she look back then? what was she thinking about? why was he never next to her? why was he so concerned about the prosperity of some other guy’s company? why had he forgotten about the only valuable and precious thing that was actually his — his Little Birdie? But was she really his? He hardly knew anything about her, because he had never bothered to ask the right questions; now nobody could answer them. They’d exhausted and squandered their time together, and it seemed like he couldn’t care less about his own time.
So, he embarked on a journey, disregarding the fact that throughout history the aim of travelling, first and foremost, has been to escape oneself, not move one’s body through space. It was as though he had no clue that he’d catch up to himself somewhere along his escape route and be forced to look himself straight in the eye, like an executioner staring at his victim — his gaze passing sentence and demanding repentance. He embarked as if he didn’t know that the Balkans always bring misfortune and never heal anyone’s wounds. There were a few times when his subconscious signaled that he was running away in the hope of meeting his death, in the mistaken belief that death could redeem him, as though his conscience would stop plaguing him after his physical dissolution. Don’t think so, buddy boy! He’s running away to take his own life somewhere far away, far removed from familiar faces and landscapes, as if you can just disappear, evaporate! Poof! You just can’t, though.
He’d wanted to take Lesya to the Balkans but it just never panned out. At first, France and Italy — in short, the West — were on top of her list. She wanted to just suddenly find herself someplace far away, in a world better and more beautiful than her own. The Balkan Peninsula had its own charm, but everything was just as ass-backwards there as it was in Ukraine, so what was the point in going? Serhiy deferred to his wife, mostly because he didn’t feel like arguing about it. After they got to know their way around Tuscany and Provence, they entered a new stage in life where they found themselves increasingly tied down and boxed in. They took out some loans to buy a car, and then an apartment; the man got a second job, while Lesya started taking extra work home. Determined to pay back the money they’d borrowed as quickly as possible, they let their best years whiz by unnoticed, so she never did see Bosnia. Maybe she never really wanted to, though, since one time she fell into a slumber, simply and nonchalantly, right in the middle of one of her husband’s stories about that marvelous country. Her taking no interest in what he loved and cherished so deeply didn’t even hurt at all. As a young man, he dreamt about taking his wife there someday, to his favorite place on Earth. It was as though he’d confided in her and wholly exposed his soul, and she just fell asleep — but that doesn’t matter anymore.
Jesus was giving Serhiy an unmistakably friendly look — there on the icon, His eyes seemed to twinkle with amity and compassion, as though God’s son approved of the man’s agony and remorse. He became more subdued and gloomy, as though the promise of rain was inside him, not outside. The first heavy drops slammed against the roof, and then the storm poured out steady noise, like the waves of a lost radio signal. After that, Serhiy noticed a wicker basket on the ground in front of the icon — grateful visitors would toss their donations in it. It was filled with all kinds of different-colored bills and heavy coins; a few thousand Serbian Dinars stood out right in front of him.
The man cast a glance at Jesus, looked back at the basket, and then lowered his eyes. The thought that whipped by deep in his mind was a despicable one. He sure could use that money now, though! After all, the swarms of visitors made their donations in the belief they would go to a good cause — and wouldn’t helping him, a crippled and wretched man, left all alone, stripped of everything, and exiled to the edge of the world, without any aim or purpose, please God? Serhiy cast another glance at Jesus and saw approval in his eyes once again. It was just as deafeningly loud inside his head as it was outside; his heart was pounding madly, as though it was bottoming out and smashing on every beat. At that point, the man began observing himself and this whole picture from a distance — there he was, sitting in front of the icon and the basket filled with money was in the middle. Now the basket was on Jesus’ side, not Serhiy’s side, as though the Lord was extending his hand to a person down on his luck. The person stood up and approached the icon tentatively, yet seemingly resigned to his fate.
Thunder struck, like a dry log splitting in half. Encouraged by the sound, the man reached out and scooped up a handful of money. Then he did it again and again, stuffing crisp bills down his shirt. When he was finished, he picked up his backpack and set off towards the exit, scurrying like a criminal. Only then did he notice the priest who’d been observing this whole mute scene from deep inside the church. Serhiy nodded and crossed himself; the priest tilted his head in reply and blessed the sojourner once his silhouette had disappeared through the gate.
The storm broke, yet large raindrops kept surging off the roof of the church. They flew, reflecting the surrounding world like spheres of glass, smacking their wet lips and shattering against the cold paving stones below. More raindrops followed — surging, flying, and shattering.