The harsh blue sky has softened with the descent of the sun into early evening. Yulia, done with the last Holstein, pushes a lock of hair out of her eyes and stretches her back. Despite everything, Yulia still milks the cows, twice a day. The farm women’s suggestions, at first, were made in polite attempts at her language, with soft, cooing voices and touches on her arm.
Yulia, maybe you’d like to help in the kitchen instead. Yulia, maybe you’d prefer to help with less strenuous chores. Let Anatole carry the milk buckets, let him, let him…
Then the messages grew more insistent and more often were delivered in Polish.
Yulia, think of your child.
How can she not think of her child?
But Yulia keeps smiling and waves them away, saying she can handle it, saying she’d done these things and more in Ukraine. Of course, that is not completely true. Before taking asylum at the Polish farm, she hadn’t as much as looked at a cow since her teen years at her grandfather’s dairy. But hauling boxes of supplies to people in the shelters, combing through debris for what could be salvaged, carrying victims of Russian shelling and children who were too tired to walk to yet another promise of evacuation—it has made her strong enough for these things.
Why stop simply because she is pregnant?
They think we are so fragile. They should watch a woman give birth to a baby that has been forced upon her and will traumatize her all over again, seeing her rapist’s features in an infant’s face. Even if that baby is given up to the uncertainty of adoption, she will never forget.
She sucks in a breath, sets a hand on her belly. She thinks about Maksym and presses the memory of his dark eyes and full lips into her growing fetus. She thinks of the proprietary touch of his callused but still tender hand. It’s foolish, she knows, that thinking hard enough will make this his child and no one else’s. She doesn’t want to remember the others, afraid that if she lets that possibility invade her mind, she’ll take the remedy so many of her Ukrainian sisters have—either to end the pregnancy or their own lives. Both of which are illegal in this country that has otherwise been so kind to her.
This baby has to be Maksym’s. She will not survive otherwise.
And she has to survive.
The voice brings her back. It’s Anatole.
“Ah,” she says, giving him a wry smile. “So again they have sent you to spare my delicate condition, have they?”
He blushes. It gives her a mean kind of pleasure. He is a good young man, but so earnest. So naïve.
“I just… I—”
She spares him further embarrassment and simply hands him a bucket to take—their evening dance together.
They walk back to the shed in silence. He pours both of their buckets into the big milk can that will go to market in the morning. Too soon, the buckets are empty and rinsed and the can is topped. This part, the two of them left alone with no purpose, makes her stomach crawl. Before she can say goodnight and disappear, he holds up a hand to stop her. She glares at it, at the aggressiveness of it, halting her progress. Perhaps noting this, he slowly lets it drop and his blush creeps back in.
“Yulia.” His voice breaks. “My offer to you…it was genuine. I meant what I said. You should not have to be alone with…”
Enough of this. “With my dead married lover’s bastard child?”
He appears smaller now. Her right palm goes to her belly. I didn’t mean that, Maksym. Little one, you are his and I loved him. Love. He’s still alive. He has to be still alive.
“I have angered you,” Anatole says softly in broken Ukrainian, trying to blank the hurt off his face. “I am sorry.”
Yulia shakes her head, raises both hands in surrender. His eyes, so earnest. So wounded. She did this to him. She feels bad for it now. As if viewing the scene from the first row of a movie theater, she watches her left hand cup his cheek. Watches her draw closer and kiss him. All the while she wants to yell at the woman. “No, don’t do this!” But it’s hopeless. All Yulia can do is watch as this woman leads him away into the night.
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