by Ken Altabef
She was surprised to find that even after twenty years of wind and rain, the crimson paint mark remained visible on her front door. Faded and clotted with gray dust, the treble mark persisted, still bearing its dismal message. Each wedge of the trisected circle gave up its own piece of the puzzle—the ID number of the search team, which was 4P56, the date of the search listed as 11/8/14, and occupying the bottom-most position, the number of dead found within. That number was zero.
Flakes of red crumbled away from her fingertips as Dolorza brushed absently at the mark. None found in the home, she thought, but three victims all the same. Her father, who had succumbed to lymphoma seven years after the exposure, her mother, who had died of a broken heart soon thereafter, and the silent price she herself had paid over the years.
Dolorza gazed up along the deserted street, like the mark itself, covered in a fine layer of dust so uniformly colorless that the little town seemed asleep under a dead cloth of gray, the precise color of sorrow. Some of the nearby houses had collapsed, either from decay or the ravages of the blast, leaving only jutting reminders of the life that had been. She would clean the house soon enough, but she wondered if they would ever get the dust out of the street.
Sametvhaya had always been an insignificant farming town, too small and too far from T’bilisi for anyone to take much notice. Yet remembered through the haze of her childhood, the storefronts loomed large as monuments, peopled by colorful personalities. There had been Vasiliy Raskov’s bargain shop on the corner, which she had frequented often in search of sweets and flashy European magazins, and the fifty-kopeck barbershop on the corner opposite, and down the street, the Mazniashvili farm, represented in her mind by the cloying scent of a cedar bucket brimming with fresh buttermilk. The search crews had removed all the bodies, but there was no help for the dust.
The lock on her door had been smashed off by the long ago search and rescue team, but there was no need to worry about looters. She stood for some time, lingering just a few steps inside the doorway, tentatively drinking in the first sight of her home in twenty years. With everything still in place, just as she had left it, she could not help but recall that deadly sunset streaking a midday sky, her father babbling on about a blast radius and a storm front of radiation and how you couldn’t see it or feel it but it could kill you, how they had to get away as far and as fast as they were able, Mother scrambling madly about the place, desperately trying to decide what she could salvage, and her father ultimately convincing her to leave all of it. Leave it all. These she remembered most vividly, like snapshots in a nightmarish slide show: her father’s icy desperation, her mother’s tear-streaked face, and her own hot, confused fear. She had experienced her menses earlier that very day, the first one, at age eleven. The last one.
She had brought plenty of supplies on the truck, but decided to unload later. She didn’t want to bring food into a dirty house, and besides, the intense late summer heat spoke with forceful eloquence against such heavy lifting at high noon. She would just retrieve the box of cleaning materials and get started.
As she turned and walked out, Dolorza remembered again that afternoon when they had fled the house, everything looking exactly as it did now except for the endless rime of dust, and felt as if she were reenacting some hideous shadow play. But this time she wasn’t running away, she told herself. This time she was coming back. She was here to stay.
By late afternoon, she had the kitchen looking reasonably well. If not clean, it was at least free of the dust, and that was victory in itself for one day. She turned her attentions next to the bedroom, choosing her parents’ bedroom because it was the larger and also because she could not face her old room and the heartbreaking museum of her youth that it contained, not on the first day. By the time she had made the bedroom livable, dusk was rapidly deepening, rendering the entire house in lifeless shadow. Despite what she had been promised, electricity had not yet been restored.
Dolorza went at last to the sunroom, a rectangular enclosure off the kitchen, the walls of which were composed almost entirely of large banks of windows. In her mother’s day, the room had been covered wall-to-wall with potted plants and living things, a treasure trove of colorful petals and blooms. Memory brought its glorious smell flooding back to her, painting the empty room with a heady, offbeat mixture of scents: heather, persimmon, and marigold. Now all that had withered away, almost without a trace. Only empty terra cotta pots on the plaited bamboo shelving remained, sporting an occasional dried branch or lifeless twig. She had brought only two plants with her, wounded waifs much like herself, a stilted nasturtium and a sickly cryptomeria, and now placed them at opposite ends of the room. In time, she would fill this room again.
She had not the strength left to tackle all those windows, not today, but thought she might at least sweep out the floor before day’s end.
It was her whisk that uncovered the graffiti. In the center of the concrete slab, someone had drawn an exquisite portrait of a woman’s face in thin willowy lines. But who could have done that and how long it had lain there undisturbed, she could not imagine. Dolorza gently brushed aside the last of the dirt and dried leaves, her fingertips inadvertently caressing the delicate line of the portrait’s cheek. The face was almost photographic in its subtle depth of detail, beautifully rendered in charcoal on concrete. A weather-beaten shroud was knotted atop the woman’s head in the manner of a babushka, wrought in intricate detail as it failed valiantly to contain the cascading lines of long dark hair. It was a strong face, a proud face. The kind of woman who loved the land, who would gulp greedily the aroma of golden morning wheat, who would be fiercely devoted to her man, overly protective of her children, a keen gardener herself, perhaps.
For all it was a pleasant face, Dolorza felt offended by this small desecration of her house, a place that was exclusively her own, the hallowed ground of her irreplaceable youth. Working by candlelight late into the evening, Dolorza scoured the surface, rubbing two cloths to rags and skinning her fingertips until at last she resigned to bed, the job unfinished.
Dolorza had an encouraging surprise the next day, when she awoke to find the lights were on. As if the long intervening years had never existed, she went directly to the sunroom, anticipating the glorious sight she would find there, a staple of her childhood. In this small thing, at least she was not disappointed. The early morning sunlight came slanting in through the broad welcoming windows in golden sheets, grime on the panes notwithstanding, to illuminate a galaxy of dust motes that hung suspended in the air. Dolorza imagined them spinning gently, like new worlds in the sky.
There was still the problem of the face on the slab that stubbornly resisted all her attempts with brush and powder. Now with the full light of morning, she found she was mistaken, that the previous day’s efforts did seem to have had some effect. The lines of the woman’s face were subtly blurred, lending the odd illusion of an altered expression. The faded mouth seemed widened now in surprise and, the pupils gone, the eyes gaped up at her in a look that suggested stunned disbelief. Dolorza fought the urge to fetch the abrasive and set about finishing the job; she could not bear such a task so early in the morning. First, breakfast. She had brought fresh strawberries and yogurt, only slightly worse off for a night without refrigeration, and potato blintzes.
She ate alone in the silent kitchen. Despite the disquieting sight on the sunroom floor, she felt an enriching sense of affirmation and renewal that seemed to emanate from the house itself. She was the first one back, and that was important to her. The government had lifted the restriction on Sametvhaya only days ago. Why the headlong rush to return? Because, simply, this was home. Over the past twenty years, she had been unable, unwilling, to settle elsewhere. She was not an itinerant, not a refugee. That didn’t feel right. This she knew: she belonged here.
Perhaps the worst of it was that it wasn’t supposed to have happened at all. Dolorza didn’t know much about international politics and didn’t care to. She didn’t understand advanced strategic computers, automated launch codes, or comprehensive antiterrorist responses. Those words were just so much junk, completely without meaning to her. She could only comprehend the disaster when couched in human terms: a Naval Commander on the brink of a nervous breakdown after an ugly scene between his mistress and his wife, preoccupied, distraught. A perceived threat in Southern Chechnya. A mistake. In the end, a senseless war of retaliation had been avoided, and she was grateful for that, but Sametvhaya had paid the price. It wasn’t supposed to happen that way. It wasn’t supposed to have happened at all.
After breakfast, she went to the rear patio, seeking to revisit another precious memory of her youth—walking barefoot and carefree in the early morning, the feel of dew on the moss between the stones, cool against the soles of her feet. She had always needed to step so carefully to avoid the paths of intrepid little garden snails in their tan and red shells, but no longer. The courtyard was bone dry now and choked with gray dust. She swept vigorously, trying to shake the powder loose from the cracks between the kerpics. Once, those cracks had creeping vines in them, outlining the stones with a pattern of bright emerald green. Now, leaning close, she found fragile shoots deep in the cracks, desperate opportunists not yet strong enough to have made their own way. They are coming back, she thought. Dolorza swept at length with careful diligence, letting them all, each and every one, out into the light.
When she returned to the sunroom, the face was gone. Reaching down, she rubbed her hand across the slab, to find not a trace of charcoal. This she found only mildly surprising. So much here was flaking away, disturbed by her presence. Let it go.
Dolorza thought little more about the vanishing face of the young dyevooshka, until the next day when she found a new face in the slab on the sunroom floor. What was this? The new face was that of a laughing child, perhaps three or four years old. Its cherubic smile disturbed her beyond measure, the huge innocent eyes stung her own. She was totally unnerved at the sight of this baby, a sight that pulled at her heartstrings so violently, it brought her crashing to the floor. Her knees hurt so much from bending, she could not sit down, but simply collapsed across the slab. The fleeting idea occurred to Dolorza that her tears might wash away the drawing, but the baby smiled obliviously back at her, unmoved by her sorrow. How could they? How could her tears wash away something that could not possibly exist, a product of stress and overworked imagination? These faces in the stone were figments of her past, old traumas resurfacing as they inevitably must under these conditions. Better just to ignore them, but how could she ignore that sweet face?
She wept now for all the shattered lives of Sametvhaya. Twenty years had passed, but the pain was still a searing fire, and it poured out of her in torrents. All she had lost. Her first menstruation, the first one, over before it had even begun. All the medical procedures, all the X-rays and CT scans and hospital stays, all the long-term effects of the radiation, the joint aches, the premature aging of her skin, the stubbornly sluggish bowels, and the worst of it, the absolute worst—an offhand comment she overheard a nurse make when her back was turned. She didn’t blame the nurse; she had been wholly sympathetic. She hadn’t thought Dolorza could hear. “Poor girl,” she had said. “All her eggs are fried.”
Dolorza’s maudlin train of thought was interrupted by noise outside, a car door slamming in front of her house. Flustered, still blushing with upset, she wiped the misery from her cheeks and pushing aside musty drapes, peered out her front window. There was a man outside, leaning on the back rail of his aerofoil as he took a reading before coming to the door. He wore the dark suit and black tie of the government bureaucrat, and under the midday sun, he seemed to Dolorza to cast a long, distrustful shadow across the dusty street.
Dolorza went out to meet him at the front of the house, interrupting him, half bent over as he stowed the diagnostic module away. He was a heavyset man with tired eyes as dark as asphalt, half hidden behind steel-rimmed eyeglasses. He introduced himself as Anton Deryashkin, indeed from the government, specifically the Bureau of the Interior Ministry.
“You have no phone?” he asked.
“Do you expect to be staying here alone, Zhena Natalykova?”
“Then you might consider picking a phone up in Lechkhumi,” he said, gazing somewhere over her shoulder at the house, a grim distasteful look on his face. He then turned his attention up and down the street, his head restlessly swiveling on a short, thick neck like that of an owl. Although he was obviously uncomfortable in the heat, his throat and forehead sparkling with sweat, she did not offer to take him inside.
“They said the water would be on,” she said.
“Is it not?”
“No. I’ve been using the well water for the cleaning, but I don’t trust it for drinking.”
“I understand,” Deryashkin said. “It’s probably just some glitch down in T’bilisi, some technician forgetting to turn a switch. I’ll look into it right away.”
“Don’t mention it. Someone has to see that the reparations money is well spent, all those fat American dollars.”
He could not help a little ghoulish chuckle at the thought of the money, but the laugh faded quickly into a dry cough and then silence. As he gazed down the street again, Dolorza thought she caught a flutter of something deeply felt, perhaps a sense of loss, playing out on his face.
“I remember this place,” he said.
Dolorza was surprised. He looked old enough, probably in his mid-fifties, but she did not recall ever meeting him before.
“Have you no one else?” he asked. “Didn’t you have a daughter?”
His words sent a shock running through her, like a fiery stake shoved through her heart. She was sure she let out a tiny strangled gasp before she recognized his mistake. He called her Zhena Natalykova, using the honorific for a married woman. He had mistaken her for her mother. At thirty-one, she looked fifty herself, her skin aged before her time. She saw no reason to correct him.
I have no one.”
“Nichevo. You seem to be the first on this block, but there will be others. A pair of old neighbors are coming back, I can tell you, just two houses over. A very nice couple. Barazov is their name.” Childless, Dolorza thought. A very nice couple, he said, not a very nice family. She didn’t need to ask. All the young women of Sametvhaya were in the same boat. All their eggs were fried.
“And there’s a general store opening just twenty miles to the west in about a week. I hear they’ll be willing to deliver, at least at first. You have enough supplies to last?”
“I’m sure I do.”
She should tell him, she thought, about the faces in the floor. She should tell someone, but she was afraid.
“All right, then. If there’s nothing else I can do, I wish you well. It’s a long drive from T’bilisi. I’ll not be out again for at least a week.”
When he had gone, she returned to the image of the child’s sweet face on the floor. Still laughing unnervingly, its eyes still brimming with unfulfilled hope. The sight of it was almost too painful to bear. She thought she might pry the slab up or cover it over, but Dolorza didn’t have the heart to take either action, and neither proved necessary. By late afternoon, it was gone.
Later in the week, she drove out to Lechkhumi to pick up a few more plants. She was able to purchase a nice maiden fern and a budding larkspur that she hoped would appreciate the feast of light in her sunroom. The streets of Lechkhumi were alive with activity. The Americans were building a communications tower in the center of town that would serve all of Soviet Georgia. Soon there would be instant connectivity to the web and morning newsfeeds pulled right off the satellites with her morning coffee. But this did not make Dolorza feel happy. In a way, she resented the Americans for trying to make good on their mistake from a safe distance.
All the houses on her street were still empty. The Barazovs had not yet arrived. She desperately hoped they had not changed their minds.
Every morning she spent in the sunroom, watering and caring for her plants. The larkspur was struggling, its buds softened and yellowed. She thought perhaps nothing could grow here, even after all the radiation had gone. Oh, why had she come back here? There was nothing left in this town but painful memories and bitter dregs. She caressed a sagging frond of the maiden fern and whispered to the larkspur.
“Maybe if I tell you a story,” she said. “Let me tell you about my mother. She loved this room…”
The plant struggled, but each day a new face appeared on the slab in the sunroom floor, only to fade into obscurity by sunset. Today, she looked upon another child, a girl, maybe six or seven. Could they be ghosts? A lot of people had died in this town, but none in this house. There was no ancient cemetery located under the building, no secret mass grave hidden below. Her father had built this house on reclaimed farmland. No one had died here. She was sure of it.
She could not understand how they could possibly be ghosts. I knew everyone in the town, she thought. Every face. These people had not died here. I would never forget such an adorable face as that one.
She did not understand what they were, but she was no longer afraid. Dolorza kept the knowledge of their existence a closely guarded secret. If she showed anyone else, a distasteful circus would certainly ensue with all sorts of eccentric people drawn to the house, perhaps waiting in a long line outside for their chance to gawk, with young men hawking refreshments and souvenirs, and newsfeed photographers trampling through her home. And none of them would be able to help in the least.
One thing was certain. These were not unhappy or malevolent spirits. They were more like children craving attention, saying, “Look at me.” Doing a somersault on the lawn. Look at me. Turning a headstand in the pool. Look at me. So she looked, carefully and curiously at each and every one, until the image arrived, that one singular face that held the key to all of it for her.
It was the face of a young man, painfully beautiful, with the sad eyes of an old friend and the beginnings of a beard just sprouting on his delicate chin. Beautiful.
Dolorza turned to her failing larkspur. Perhaps she would never coax them from it, but she desperately wanted to see its lofty violet blooms.
“Let me tell you about Kasimir Barazov,” she said. “He used to live just next door. I would watch him on weekends, chopping wood for his fire.”
She stopped suddenly, turning her attention again to the face of the young man on the slab. He seemed the kind of man who would enjoy hunting in the woods just as much as reading a good book, who would take pride in the things he could build with his own hands, who would contemplate the stars while composing bawdy lyrics to share with his friends. The kind of man who would stand up for what he believed in, who would run off government inspectors seeking graft just as stubborn Kasimir Barazov had done years ago. And that comparison was perhaps inevitable because the face had Kasimir Barazov’s lips. The handsome young man resembled Barazov in many ways but was not quite the same. Yes, the young man had Barazov’s mouth, but he also had Barazov’s wife’s eyes. Dolorza knew the couple had no children. Such fulfillment had become as impossible for Zhena Barazov as it had for her.
And suddenly, she realized what these remarkable faces in the stone represented and also their urgent, desperate need. A receptive spirit, an encouraging glance, a friendly smile in the morning.
But why were they coming here? She wasn’t responsible.
Of course, she knew the answer. Where else could these children go? She was here. There was no one else. If only the Barazovs had come back. If only they could see. Never mind, she told herself. I’ll just have to do.
There would be electrical power provided without charge for the next few years, courtesy of the repentant Americans, and that would provide a potent incentive to the speculators who had purchased the farms. The land, healed, would produce once more. There would be new people coming in, fertile ones, and children to run in the streets of Sametvhaya once again. But what about these? How do you right a wrong that was never supposed to have happened?
She couldn’t show anyone else; she knew they wouldn’t understand. So Dolorza went on, and as she filled the sunroom with green and blooming things, she found herself nursing a remote hope, the faintest whisper of a dream—that she might eventually glimpse her own son or daughter in the stone slab. That day might never come, but for now, it was enough to wake each morning and greet the new day, the new face.
As a SFWA member, Ken’s short fiction has appeared numerous times in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. He has recently placed stories with Interzone, Abyss & Apex, Buzzymag, Stupefying Stories, Unsettling Wonder and Crimson Fog.
WAY OF THE SHAMAN, his 5-part series of epic fantasy novels with an arctic setting is published by Blueberry Lane Books. You can preview this work and others at the author’s website WayOfTheShamanONLINE.com