Yuzovka was landlocked, so a scent of sea in the air was the first warning that the winds were approaching fast, maybe a day away from the town at most. The faintest taste of salt on your tongue, in your throat as you took a deep breath. This was followed a few hours later by a cloying, choking aroma of citrus and spices, smells which were alien to that area of Ukraine.
Fragrances from foreign places.
A breeze—not yet the winds they feared, a precursor—twisted through the forests that encircled the town, the pine trees swelling and pulsing with music, whispers, and noise from distant cities. Radios and televisions ceased to work properly, full of static ghost sounds and images. Telephones too were unreliable, liable to connect or disconnect mid-sentence.
Yuzovka knew it was cut off and unlikely to receive any aid. Even if they were somehow believed by an official on the other end of a ministry phone in Kiev, the best they could hope for would be an exclusionary zone formed around the town, until Soviet scientists established that what was happening wasn’t the result of some new, secret American weapon.
The winds weren’t a creation of the Cold War.
They were far, far older.
Luca Kaganovich woke to find himself alone on the bed in the darkened bedroom, the curtains drawn across the windows. He called out his wife Irina’s name, but received no response. Outside, he could hear a primal howling and roaring, increasing all the time.
He switched on the bedside lamp, relieved the electricity was still working, the generator in the apartment block full of fuel for now.
The bedroom bore the signs of their earlier frantic work. Ripped remnants from cereal boxes littered the floor like discarded wrapping paper, the few remaining cardboard strips which hadn’t been taped to the edges of the windows to seal them shut. Newspapers plugged any small holes or cracks in the walls of their small apartment. Wet towels had been jammed under doors. Flimsy insulation against the winds. Protection for the desperate.
He and Irina had spent all day trying to make it safe. From the window, Luca had seen so many people running around in the courtyard five stories below, some with wooden beams and hammers.
He had laughed bitterly at that. Wood had too many cracks in it. Even the smallest opening was wide enough for the winds to get through.
And yet, as he’d heard hammering echo through the corridors of the apartment block, the sound not yet drowned out by the gale outside, he wished he had done something similar, to at least give them both the illusion of safety. Wood is more solid than cardboard.
It was too late by then, and the two of them just made good with what they had. It would have been dangerous to go outside again.
They worked fast and hard, and had been exhausted afterwards. The only thing now left was to put their heads down and hold each other and sleep. If somehow the worst came to pass, then at least it might happen without them knowing, Luca had said.
As if that was some kind of blessing.
Calling out Irina’s name, Luca put on a thin dressing gown and cautiously made his way into the hallway. As he passed the bathroom, he heard a low whistle from inside which made his stomach coil and twist. A piece of newspaper had been shoved into the keyhole of the door, and twisting it out, he peered inside.
Across the bathroom, he saw in the window-frame cardboard flapping frantically against what was blowing outside, revealing the spiderweb of cracked glass.
A breeze played across his eye, and in a half second, Luca understood what had happened, could see it all as if it was his own memory: Irina getting up from their bed, needing to use the toilet. The guttering from just outside the apartment whipped from its hinges by the storm and smashing through the glass of the bathroom window. Irina panicking initially before a tranquil gust reached her, calming her. Irina leaving the bathroom, heading towards the kitchen. She wanted to go outside.
A flash, as all this played in his head, and he realised what was happening and jerked back, jamming the newspaper back into the keyhole, rubbing his eye furiously, as if that would help. He hurried into the kitchen but there was no one there. It still smelled of the fried dumplings they had eaten earlier, as they had been unable to air the kitchen.
He peered out the window over the kitchen sink, and saw Irina, just visible in the swirling dust, halfway across the courtyard below. She swayed like a drunk as she walked, the winds strong enough to push her to and fro.
He turned at a noise behind him. The door to their apartment hung open, and he raced over, slamming it shut. He closed his eyes, and sank down onto the floor, cursing, pulling at his hair. He shouldn’t have suggested they sleep. He should’ve stayed awake and kept her safe. This was his doing.
Outside, he thought he heard his name being called just on the edge of the screech of the winds.
She was out there, alone.
And though he was scared, scared of what he might lose, he knew he had to try to bring her back to safety.
He found a heavy coat, gloves, some shades, and wrapped a scarf around his face until no bit of his skin was bare.
He pulled open the front door and went outside.
Even with the generator, he didn’t trust the elevator, so he made his way down the five flights of stairs as quickly as he carefully could. He couldn’t afford to slip and fall.
In the corridor on the ground floor, the front doors to the apartment block were swinging open wildly, and even under all his protection, he could feel the winds funnelling towards him.
He wasn’t alone in the corridor. A man was slamming his hand against the door of one of the ground floor apartments, demanding to be let into his home. Luca recognised him as a teacher from the local school, Grigori Kirichenko.
‘I pay the rent, woman. You let me in,’ he yelled, his mouth close against the door. ‘You let me in now.’
Grigori didn’t live in that apartment, never had. He lived in an apartment block far on the other side of Yuzovka, but the winds must have blown someone else’s memories of living there into him.
It was what the winds did. Caught in them, your memories and hopes and thoughts would scatter and blow away, and sweep into someone else’s mind.
Luca made his way past the man. Grigori looked over his shoulder at him, but didn’t pay any more attention, just yelled over and over to be let in.
Outside in the courtyard, Luca looked up. The light was strange in the sky, filtered through air full of sand and dust which moved like a curtain drawn roughly back and forward. The apartment blocks on all four sides of him were dark monolith shadows, huge rectangles disappearing into the haze after the seventh floor.
The courtyard was strewn with rubbish twirling and dancing, and metal bins rolled by fast like animals in a panic, rushing from some predator.
The air was warm too. He hadn’t expected that.
Luca moved on in search of . . .
. . . he paused in the courtyard. What was he doing here? It was dangerous to be out here. This kind of storm, it messed with your memories. It took them from you. Best to run back to the apartment and hide from it all.
He was looking for Irina.
He cursed, the layers wrapped around him proving poor protection against the winds.
He followed the direction he had seen Irina take, out of the courtyard and away from their apartment block, and into the streets of Yuzovka. Passing rows of shops, their fronts boarded up or covered with rattling metallic sheets, he stumbled forward against the gale, repeating Irina’s name over and over so he wouldn’t forget it.
He approached a man he didn’t recognise—though he was painfully aware he might have known him, once, maybe—who was on his knees yelling in the centre of the road. The swirling gusts picked up as he reached him, and Luca loosened the scarf around his ears to hear what was being said.
‘Irina,’ the man was yelling.
Luca wanted to tell the man how Irina was nothing to him, but as he bent close, he was hit by a memory of a child-sized coffin being lowered into the ground. The feeling of guilt was almost too much to handle, and realising what was happening, Luca recoiled.
‘Irina,’ called the voice, now behind him. The man was Andro Geladze, and he had lost his son five years ago in a car accident, Luca remembered.
Luca ran from the winds, from the guilt of a loss which wasn’t his, and repeated Irina’s name to himself.
I shouldn’t have had that last drink, he thought. I shouldn’t have driven with him in the car. My boy would be alive if it wasn’t for me.
Irina. Irina. Irina.
As he searched the small maze of streets within the town centre for her, he could see the black shapes of so many people wandering out in the haze, the winds having reached them through a crack somewhere as they had with Irina, and drawn the people outside.
But that wasn’t completely true, he knew. No one admitted it, but when this kind of storm came, there had always been people who went out by choice. Perhaps Andro Geladze was one of them. If you had the chance to get rid of a painful memory, why wouldn’t you take the chance of it being torn mercifully from you by the winds?
It was seductive, and Luca could understand why people thought it worth the risk. But nature isn’t merciful, and these winds weren’t to be trusted. They would always take more than what you offered. They were remorseless. They didn’t stop because something had reached its limit. They would blow until trees bent and splintered and were felled, until glass vibrated to shatters, and minds were lost.
And beyond all that, there was always that feeling of intangible loss. A gap where something so important once had been, something that formed a vital part of you, good or bad. No-one survived losing that, not really. Even if they were living, they weren’t.
The winds blew harder, doing what was in their nature to do. Moving the world from one place to another, eroding more than they germinated. They were a ripping, destructive force of nature.
Luca felt the tempest of unyielding, warm air against his face as he searched for Irina.
Irina . . . was that even the reason he was out here? Maybe she was someone else’s memory, was someone else’s love. Maybe he was running around looking for someone who meant nothing to him.
As he searched the streets, pushing through gusts which pulled him this way and that, he called to mind memories of their lives together, even as he knew the winds might take such easy pickings, pluck them from his head and gift these happy memories to someone else.
Irina’s laugh, dirty and loud.
Irina’s eyes, brown with specks of green.
Irina holding on to him as she slept in his arms.
His mind was full of memories of her, and he knew her name on his lips was no mistake. There was too much of her inside him.
There was a good chance, he knew, that by now she might not know who he was anymore. Maybe she would have memories of love for someone else, memories caught in a circling gust. But he still had to find her. At least then she would be safe, even if he proved a stranger to her for the rest of her days.
He moved faster, and prayed to his memories of her that he found her before that.
Irina’s hair, long and curling after she washed it, smelling faintly of coconut.
Irina stretching out on the grass, blissful beneath a warm sun.
Irina’s eyes . . .
He couldn’t remember what colour they were anymore.
He moved faster.
In the furious air, Luca heard his name, but muffled beneath his layers he couldn’t tell from where. He stopped in the centre of town beneath the old clock tower and ripped the scarf and the shades from his face, and listened.
He heard his name, yes; but he was sure he also heard the swirling gusts scream a trill of pleasure that fresh meat was there for the taking.
He listened, and squinted through the dust, and saw a shape huddled in the doorway of a shop.
‘Luca,’ he heard, barely.
He hurried to the shape, and as he did he felt the winds pull and push at his mind, probe his memories, seed him with others not his own.
He was a small boy holding his arm carefully after their dog bit it, watching his father put it down.
He was an old woman mourning the passing of her husband.
He was someone’s first kiss.
He was a drunk spending his last coins on vodka.
He was a ten-year-old girl blowing out candles on her birthday.
He was a man in search of Irina.
He held on to that last thought, and reached her, and pulled her up and close to him. All around he felt the pressure of the winds, and he tried to protect Irina with his body. He could feel his clothes being whipped, felt a gale trying to get between him and his wife, trying to push him away. He held her tightly, and felt the winds give up trying to get to her, and instead they mimicked his embrace, tight and enfolding him.
He felt like he was floating in warm water. Peaceful. Without any worry.
Luca looked down at the woman he was holding.
He could smell coconut in the air, faint from her hair. He wasn’t sure who she was, but something inside him told him he had to keep her safe. He grabbed her hand and together they ran and ran into the storm.