(Author’s note: I wrote this story two weeks after the Russian invasion of Ukraine.)
Yulia eyes Maksym, who sits bathed in the shadows that fall from the flickering lights, and smudges in more charcoal where it’s needed. In the hollows of his cheekbones and clavicles. Even in the thick, lumpy scar that runs diagonally across his chest, a souvenir—as he calls it—from the last war. Does he know how beautiful he is? No. Men never know these things. Well…some know. Those are the ones who hurt you. This man is still a puzzle to her, more than one simply to be deconstructed and reassembled on her sketchpad, even though he’s one of her favorite models—when he’s not out fighting the Russians. Thinking about the danger he faces on the outside tightens her stomach.
“You could have left, with the others,” he says, as if he can read her thoughts. “I don’t know why you would have stayed.”
“I stay…” She is suddenly conscious of the press of time. When will the sirens go off? When will the upstairs neighbors be arriving? She rents the entire basement, such as it is, and they bring whatever food and water and blankets and flashlights they can find, everyone pitching in to care for one another. She teaches the children to draw; it calms them, and there’s no shortage of charcoal. But right now she scolds her selfishness for just wanting to complete Maksym’s portrait. At least then he could put his shirt back on and not have to endure the cold.
He has endured enough. They all have.
“It is where I’m from,” she says, her voice shaking. “It’s what I know. I will not run scared.” She stands straighter. “I will not run from that khuylo.”
He grins, deepening the shadows on his face in a way that is not unpleasant. “Putin khulyo.”
“I want to shout it from the rooftop,” she says. “The way they do at the football games.” She looks at the unfinished drawing, and lets her shoulders drop. No more. She has lost the thread. “You might as well get dressed. You must be freezing.”
“It is nothing,” he says. As he stands. As he reaches for the bulky sweater he’d draped across a wooden chair.
The action moves something in her, heightens his unselfconscious beauty. “Wait.”
Maksym looks up, eyes deep and soft. Asking a question.
“We still have time,” she says, stepping closer, her voice silent in the underground depths. “Yes?”