The fish had milky-blue eyes that bulged and reminded the boys of the old Red Army soldiers that sometimes wandered into the village and sat with tin cups and crusts of salt dried around their lids and lashes, stunned and hungry. The fishes’ gills opened and closed in panicky gasps and seized in the boys’ hands until the boys knocked them on the head. They filleted them and roasted them over a small fire, plucking the hot white meat from the sticks.
Once, one of the boys caught a fish and yelled at the others to come see. They splashed towards him where he stood with his catch held far from his skinny white chest. It was a small carp, slick and silver-brown with fat grey lips and both of its eyes on one side of its head. The boys laughed and poked at it, brought it back to the shore and sliced it open on a hot rock in the sun. They dug around in its guts looking for other oddities, and then dared each other to eat chunks of it raw. One boy picked up the head and flung it at the back of another with a bloody thunk.
Sometimes after they had eaten, the boys climbed the limbs of the old fir trees. At first, they called out to one other, threw twigs and cones and laughed as they rocked, hands sticky with sap, but as the sun dropped their voices did too, and they went silent as the last birds called from their nests, a forest of boys swaying in the twilight. Their fathers had done this before them. And their fathers, too. Later, they dropped to the ground and went home stinking of fish and lake grass, to mothers who scolded them and scrubbed their backs and arms and faces in water so hot it turned their soft skin pink.
When the restriction notices went up in town about drinking water from the Techa River or eating the fish in it or in the lakes nearby, everyone obeyed at first. Forty miles of dark foam floated on the surface like a frothy plague of water turned to blood. Trucks left the nearby Mayak chemical plant and travelled the road like a conveyor belt to the shores of the river. They dumped load after load into it and then even more into Karachay Lake. There were rumours of a poison reaching the Atlantic.
One day, men came and dammed the Techa River, and then, after years of thin living and war and empty chairs at the dinner table were like gravestones, there was a rich riverbed that had once been under water. Everyone who could grabbed a piece and planted it. People started drinking the water again. A feast of fish, but the fish were blind.
Gardens were sown and harvested and sown and harvested, and the boys, nearly men, began to see Rusalka in their dreams. She swam through the waters of Karachay Lake, her tail silver-green as she rode the small waves like sea foam, and was carried to the shore where the boys watched, tied in silence. When her tail touched sand, it split, formed feet and legs and she walked from the water toward them, smooth, naked as a pearl. The boys followed her to the edge of the beach where the fir trees met the shore. She climbed and perched in the arms of the branches, singing songs that made their breathing turn to clacking as they climbed the tree after her and their mothers in the shape of flopping fish on the rocks called out to go no nearer. And then at once they were in the water drowning. Rusalka’s silver hair in their mouths, her tail around their legs, pulling them deeper. The boys woke drenched and panting, gums swollen, blood smeared over their white teeth.
The Mayak plant was burning. A two-and-a-half metre thick concrete lid shot into the air and landed thirty metres away. Dissolved nuclear waste rose in smoke, collected like a cloud and shadowed the land five miles wide, raining over the province of Chelyabinsk. It rained on the houses, the thatched roofs, the gardens of carrots and potatoes and leeks; it rained on the cattle, the sheep, the pigs lolling in the cool mud; it rained on the forest of fir and pine along the rivers, on the meadow grasses of the steppes, the clover and caragana shrubs, on the badgers and the polecats and the bears digging for bugs in the damp under rocks. And it blew in the open windows, settled on the baked bread, on the jugs of milk, and on the boys eating at the table, drinking from tin cups.
Then the fish weren’t blind, they were dead. And the boys weren’t boys anymore, they looked like old men, aching and brittle, faces red and splotchy, vomiting and weak. Skin sloughed off their cheeks and foreheads and hands in large sheets, while their mothers eyed them at dinner with growing terror and the food that none of them could now eat.
The towns along Techa River were gathered up like fruit, first one, and then months later another, and then another. The army came and notices were posted again, and the people were collected and carried away from their homes. Their houses were burned and the top layer of their land scraped from the earth, grey scabs of rock where nothing grew again, the wild animals as homeless as the people, the trees and flowers and grasses, homeless. Dead fir trees in the dead ground. And none of the villagers were told why.
They went to the hospitals – the boys and mothers and sisters and fathers all nauseated and weak and sweating in the night. Rusalka called to them all from Karachay. There was a bead of sweat on the doctor’s upper lip when he called it blood disease and vegetative syndrome, but no one knew what vegetative syndrome was, so the people called it river sickness. The doctor could do little to help, so the people went home again. The mothers boiled broth and said prayers in the four corners of each room, the fathers flipped through old seed catalogues, and the sisters chose names for babies that would never be born.
The boys died panicked and confused in homes not their own, and Karachay Lake shrunk while trucks from the Mayak plant, patched and producing again, slipped their loads into the dark water. The dusty banks of the old lake absorbed the secrets they planted in it, and it contracted deeper and deeper into itself, until it was a wet shadow on the dry land.
One night, maybe the townsfolk say, the ghosts of the boys climbed the dead fir trees along the shore and called to Rusalka until she came up from the lake, wailing. Her smooth skin was covered in coarse black hair, eyes growing on her hands and neck, her feet webbed and her breasts gaping wounds. As she rose, her wailing grew louder and the dead boys moaned with her, cracking the dome of imposed silence that sealed Chelyabinsk. She started to spin, slowly at first and then gathering speed, flying like a cyclone over the dried lake bed, gathering up the poisoned dust like a spinning spool with thread, she moved to the centre of Karachay, rose high above the trees, a screeching storm, until she finally burst, and all the throbbing dust released into the winds that carried it out to the villages for miles around. The fir trees shook in its wake, leaves and needles and seeds sucked into the rush, and the ghost boys felt their ghostly skin prick at the evil passing of it.
The Karachay dust blew its way over four hundred thousand people, while men in white coveralls came to the lake and filled the bed with concrete blocks to pin the poison down. But the land had already revolted and would not be contained. A lake turned weapon – the concentrations so lethal that a single hour standing on its shores changed any living thing into a ghost.
And people turned afraid, as the land turned against them.
In 2009, Artyom Sidorkin had trouble breathing. He was a boy-faced man with red hair and a soft voice; when he spoke, he lowered his eyes. He lived in the Ural Mountains, four hundred kilometres away from the Mayak chemical plant, and he did not want to go down to the city of Izhevsk and the hospital there. He hated the city, but he was coughing up blood. It was like needles in his chest when he inhaled, and no one wondered what this meant.
In the Udmurtian Cancer Center, Dr Kamashev showed Artyom the scan of his lungs. The doctor traced the outline of the tumour with the tip of his ballpoint pen. It was so large that even he, this man from the mountains, could tell where it was. ‘I’ve seen hundreds of these before’, Kamashev said, ‘and it must be removed at once.’ Artyom nodded; he was twenty-eight years old, and he was going to die.
Even cancer cells only want to live; life will take hold of life wherever it can. What the surgeon would say later is that when he made the incision and prepared to remove the tumor, he stopped and blinked three times before calling someone else to come see. What Artyom Sidorkin would say is that nobody knows anything; no one understands how this could have happened. When the surgeon opened Artyom’s ribs and cut into his lungs, he found nestled in the red folds and poking into the capillaries a small, green fir tree.
Photograph by Alyssa Call