Valery seldom appeared before midnight. When he did, he was always in the same suit, with that same blue striped tie to go with it. Though sometimes he put on the gray one. The physicist seemed more alert than when he was alive, can’t tell if it’s a side-effect of death, or just the suit. In their Chernobyl days, Valery was either in a rumpled dress shirt, or clad in a sack-like khaki jacket. Seen from afar, he resembled a sun-dried pupa stuck on a piece of bark.
The first time the professor made his appearance, he was no more than a silhouette, a trick of light, woven by the curtain and shadows lurking in the corner. Dissipated by the time Shcherbina sat up straight. It wasn’t long before the deputy chairman lost that last bit of strength. As he waned, the hunched shadow in the corner grew more discernible. Larger the dose of prescribed morphine, the more tangible Valery became. The physicist sat there silent, both hands on his knees, as though he was still waiting to be beckoned into a conference room somewhere. Shcherbina called out to him a few times, Valery remained impassive. It was the nurse who rushed in to see if he wanted water.
Get out. He thought, closing his eyes.
His ward was, for most time of the day, still. The blinds were either half way open or completely shut, depending on the period of time he managed to stay conscious. Sleep deepened and expanded, like an ocean. What felt like a few minutes of submergence revealed a transformed world. He’d resurface to find fresh flowers on the nightstand withered. Murky moonlight burst into a blazing sun. The chair by the window was empty save for a pen. Why a pen? Who would leave such a thing behind? On this very chair?
He went under again.
Whirring of a helicopter. Ringing of a telephone. Gunshots. Reddish-brown, radiation-soaked pine trees rustling in the wind. Chainsaw. Shovels pounding on unyielding earth. Somewhere a door was banging on its frame.
“From that moment on I knew.” Said Valery.
Shcherbina’s eyes fluttered open. The physicist pick up the pen on the chair, slid it into the inner pocket of his jacket before straightening his tie. The blue one.
Valery turned. For the first time in days, their eyes met. “The pen. On our way to Chernobyl, you lent me your pen, and you listened. I didn’t expect you to remember the word ‘Uranium 235’. That’s how I knew.”
“You really don’t like speaking simple, comprehensible Russian, do you.”
“That’s how I knew you are not one of those hopeless fools, Boris.”
“You are full of nonsense. More so now that you’re dead.”
“You don’t seem to have changed at all.”
“I know. That’s why I’m here.” The physicist spread his hands, as if they were talking about something as natural as seasonal rain, clouds or rivers. He wasn’t smiling. He almost never did. Shcherbina remembered the way Valery agonized over numbers and charts. The physicist was apprehension incarnate. Spectrographs made no sense to Shcherbina, but every number on it seemed to stab Valery right at the heart. Valery, inhabitant of the atomic world, had seen this day coming.
“Five years, you said.”
“That’s what I said.”
Wheels clacked. The night shift nurse briskly walked into the ward, pushing a cart full of infusion bottles. She checked the IV, hooked a new bottle on, then left. The time was 1:20 am. Not Shcherbina’s favorite time of night. Valery remained where he was, fingers tapping on the chair. Like Shcherbina, his eyes were fixed on the clock. Does time still matter? All the clocks in the world stopped in the morning of 26 April 1986. All the time that came after are merely debts, susceptible to sudden reckoning, in which the world would have to pay in full, with interest.
Like many others, Shcherbina read about Legasov’s death in the papers. Intentionally ambiguous, as usual, heavily censored, no details available. Days passed before he managed to piece together fragments of gossip, revealing a somber picture. Suicide, climbing ropes, pistol in the drawer, unused. The time was 1:23 am. From that day on, Chernobyl, which took an enormous amount of effort to bury, crawled back into Shcherbina’s dreams. Those dreams were neither sad nor horrifying. In most of them he merely sat alone on the bench, waiting for Legasov to emerge from the makeshift court, except that Legasov never did. In other dreams he trudged through a swamp that stretched infinitely to the horizon. In the background stood the symbolic red and white chimney of Reactor Number 4. Dead birds floated silently in the muddy water; their sunken eyes covered by a layer of thin, pale haze. As Shcherbina walked by, these sad little cadavers came alive, shook off water, and took flight in flocks.
“Birds.” Valery commented, “there’s this report that I read, dead sparrows were found all over a village in Gomel Oblast. Yet children were still out there swimming and picking berries. It was the magnificent month of May, you see, no reason not to, not when the mulberries are ripe.”
“We tried our best.” Shcherbina tried to gesture, but his right hand, dotted with punctures, refused to take orders. He could hardly feel his fingers.
“I guess you could say that.”
“Why are you still here, Valery? What are you waiting for?”
“You.” Replied the physicist. He was fiddling with a lighter, on, off, on, then off again. Valery took a pack of cigarettes out, changed his mind, put it back into the inner pocket. “We should take a walk.”
“Come. The weather’s perfect.”
Valery strode over, and patted Shcherbina on his shoulder. His touch felt shockingly real. Leaning on the pillow for support, the deputy chairman hauled himself up and squinted in the dazzling sunlight. There were no shoes to be found in the ward, not even slippers. No one expected him to be able to walk again. It didn’t really matter. Shcherbina stood bare-foot on the cold floor. A ghost of a smile flitted past Valery’s lips. The professor was about to make an unwelcome remark.
“Not a word.” Shcherbina muttered, “or – “
“Or you’ll have me shot?”
“I’ll have you know it’s still within my power.”
Valery shook his head, probably rolled his eyes too, but one can’t say for sure because his glasses hid so much. The physicist held the door open for Shcherbina. The two of them walked down a deserted hallway. In the dispensary sat a nurse, but she was too busy scribbling on a notepad to pay them any mind. The glass-and-steel door leading out of the hospital made no noise when Shcherbina pushed it open. Together they stepped into the bright sun of May. The air was perfumed by apple flowers. Bees buzzed in the bush, almost drowned by the hum of a tractor engine somewhere in a distance. Someone was singing an old nursery rhyme, praising the stars and the fields.
“It’s beautiful.” He said.
“Of course, it’s spring.” Valery stuffed his tie haphazardly into the left pocket and undid the top button of his shirt. The sun was baking the dirt road. Shcherbina took off the jacket and slung it over his right arm. There was already mud on his shoes, a few tiny dots here and there, he could worry about them later. This is the wilderness of Chernobyl, bustling with life. Everything grows, everything dies. Nothing is going to change that. They walked along the winding trail that cut through the grass, towards where the skylarks sang.