None who took refuge at the small family farm in Poland would do so without a contribution. Yulia offered to milk the cows. She knew how, from summers spent at her grandfather’s dairy outside Cherkasy, and she welcomed the relative peace and quiet after the tumult of humanity that brought her there.
Cows knew how to keep secrets.
On her second day, as she trundled from the barn carrying two milk pails, a blue-eyed farmhand barely old enough to shave eased up next to her. “May I help you with this?” he asked.
Yulia blew out a steady breath. At home, before the invasion, she might have laughed at a man who’d made such an offer. She was certainly strong enough to bear the weight. But this was not her country; it was not her farm. And he was not a Russian soldier. He was just a nice young Polish man who wanted to make the disruption in her life easier. But she could not make that last fact stick. “Is this what they tell you about us? That Ukrainian women are such fragile things?”
She could almost feel the heat radiating off his blushing face. “No… I mean… They say you’ve…” He sighed, studied his boots for a moment, lifted his head. “I would just like to help.”
“Fine.” She held out one of the buckets like a trophy. “You can help.”
His name was Anatol, and he met her coming from the barn the next afternoon, and the next, and the next. Days became a week, then two, and she’d merely give him a smile of thanks, which he returned. That afternoon while taking the bucket he held her gaze long enough for even the cows to guess his growing fondness for her. Despite the swell of her abdomen. Despite the borrowed ring on her finger. She didn’t want more trouble. Didn’t want more blood on her hands—Russian or otherwise. Her fingers clenched white around the handle of the bucket she was still holding. She could still picture the man’s face. That smug, amused expression, despite the gun she’d pulled from under her bedroll. Before all went silent, and she’d had to push the weight of him off her and flee.
He is not that man. She had to keep repeating it to herself. Just a nice young Polish farmhand who wants to help. He has a name and a family and he is not that man. She repeated it all the way back from the barn.
When the milk was safely stowed, Anatol leaned against a brick wall and dabbed the sweat from his forehead with a soiled bandana. For a moment he appeared to be thinking about offering it to her, then reconsidered, stuffing it into his back pocket. He crossed his arms over his chest. “So… I hear from the others that some are returning to Kyiv, now that soldiers are withdrawing from there.” He paused. “Will you go?”
The final three words stopped her thoughts. A sudden melancholia overtook her, and she pressed a hand to her belly. What would she and this little one be returning to? A basement apartment buried in rubble? An art school that was now a tomb? And the ghosts. So many ghosts.
“Yes? What?” She shook the ghosts away, the place where the man’s smug face had been.
“Will you go?”
His tone was small, plaintive. It was clear to her now. If she left he would miss her. If she stayed? She feared for him. That he’d get too close to the hand grenade she’d become, and explode.