Without The Helmet

A young couple, newfound parents, find their life swallowed whole because of a letter from the government…

by: Bruce Costello

Back in the year 2022, at 10.15 one Sunday morning, a Moscow midwife named Natasha became a widow while changing her baby’s nappies.

A few minutes earlier, 860 kilometers away in a village on the outskirts of Kiev, her soldier husband, Alexander, had entered a house to search for an army deserter and was questioning the occupant, a Ukrainian woman. His comrade, Private Ivan Shestkov, stood guard outside what was left of the front door. 

In her Moscow apartment, not knowing her husband was in a war — in fact, unaware there was a war— Natasha was enjoying her newfound motherhood. The baby, a four month old girl with silky black hair, was giggling while Natasha was oohing and aahing as women have done with their babies since the beginning of time. Every now and then, she sang lines from a nursery song.

The thought did not even cross Natasha’s mind that her husband, who was a deacon in the Russian Orthodox Church, could die in what the President termed a Limited Military Operation. Moreover. her husband was a poet who just had a poem accepted by the prominent literary magazine Okno. 

“Alexander will be back soon,” Natasha told her friends. “The Government knows what it’s doing. And anyway, he’s a conscript and he’s only been in the army for four months, so they’re bound to keep him out of harm’s way.”

When a person has spent five years learning to be a midwife and at the same time managed to meet a sensitive young man, develop a relationship, get married, and have a baby, they tend to think that life is settled and orderly. They don’t expect the ground to open up and swallow your life whole because of a letter from the government. That was the sort of thing that used to happen during The Great Patriotic War, when Nazis invaded the Soviet Union and every citizen was called upon to do their duty. The old folk used to talk about those days, but their generation was gone and things had moved on. Life in Russia had settled down. People were more civilized. The days of War and Communism were in the past. By 2022 Russia was a modern Democracy. Things were different. 

Except they weren’t. 

The Ukrainian woman that Alexander was questioning said her name was Yulia Shevchenko. She was in her mid twenties, wearing an army greatcoat, and was clutching her baby to her chest. She was a teacher, she told Alexander, speaking heavily accented Russian, but three days earlier her school had been struck by a rocket. Now she had no school, no pupils, and no job. She was lucky she was still alive, she stated, although she said she’d rather be dead than live like this — but she kept going because of the baby. 

“I cannot stop crying. I cannot sleep. I am always afraid. When a car backfires, I dive into the nearest gutter, I cannot help myself.” Her voice rose. “What do you want here? Why are you in my house?” 

“We are searching for someone.”

“Why are you here in Ukraine?”

“We have come to liberate the Ukrainian people from the Neo-nazis who have taken over your government,” said Alexander. “Please tell me why you are wearing an army coat and where did you get it?”

“I found it in the street and I am wearing it because I am cold. Why else would I wear a coat?”

 “I am sorry, madam, but I will have to search you and your home for weapons,” replied Alexander, stepping towards her.

“No, I will not submit to a personal search and please don’t point that thing at me,” Yulia asserted, taking a step backwards. “Why are you here, in my country, killing people, and destroying our peace? Who asked you here, for God’s sake?

“As I said, we are here to liberate Ukraine from the Neo-nazis who have taken over your government, who oppress the Ukrainian people and take away your freedoms. You should welcome us as brothers, as liberators.” Alexander spoke like an actor recounting monotonous lines he’d recited so often they had lost the sense of their meaning.

Yulia laughed.

“No, our leaders are good people who do not oppress us and do not invade other countries with their rockets and bombs and their guns as your leaders do.” She snorted. “Why do you think we should welcome you? The entire population has joined the struggle against Russia. Would we do that if we were unhappy with our government?” She began to shout. “Can you not see? We are fighting for our land, for God, for our future, for our babies. We are fighting Russia to protect our freedom! 

The baby started to cry. 

Ignoring the soldier, Yulia rocked the baby, singing a Ukrainian lullaby. She sang beautifully, but her voice was tired.

The Dream passes by the window,
And Sleep by the fence.
The Dream asks Sleep:
Where shall we spend the night?”

Where the cottage is warm,
Where the baby is tiny,
There we will go,
And rock the child to sleep”

Alexander removed his helmet, ran a hand across his forehead and rubbed his eyes. Yulia looked up, staring. Without the helmet to militarize him, Alexander’s face appeared boyish and shy. There was a faraway look in his eyes. 

“You know I am right,” Yulia said to him, slowly. “You have known all along and you have heard your comrades whispering the truth — that your leaders have lied, even your church leaders have colluded with the Kremlin in lying to you. It is the truth that you hide from and are afraid to admit. You feel such shame and guilt and now you are here in my house pointing your gun at me threatening to search my body like a common thug.” Yulia was still speaking slowly but now there were tremors in her voice. “It is written on your face that you want me to forgive you, to say that it is not your fault, that you are just following orders.” She grimaced. “Well, if you love orders so much, here’s a new one for you. Piss off.” 

Yulia pointed at the door. Alexander lowered his gaze and turned to leave like a chastened schoolboy. With haste Yulia pulled a revolver from the pocket of her greatcoat and shot him in the back of the head.

Private Ivan Shestkov came running into the house and fired at her from point blank range. The bullet was slowed and deflected from its course by the skull of the baby. 

The baby went limp in Yulia’s arms, blood pouring from the hole in its head. A ghastly look came over Yulia’s face and an animalistic roared from her lips. With the revolver she was still holding, Yulia shot Private Ivan Shestkov in the chest, put a second hole into the head of Alexander, then she inserted the muzzle of the revolver into her own mouth and pulled the trigger. 

A week later in Moscow, Natasha received an official communication from the government informing her, with deepest regret, that her husband had been fatally wounded while fighting for the Motherland in Ukraine.

Natasha didn’t remember much about the following days, except that her milk dried up and she had to bottle feed her baby using milk formula. And she became unwell.

After several years the baby grew into a young girl and Natasha remarried, but sometimes when her tranquilizers wear off and she wakes up in the dead of the night. She remembers the past and a beautiful youthful face and hears a voice whispering a poem he has written for her that she has never heard before.

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