Richard the Chickenheart

Kateryna Babkina

Translated from the Ukrainian by Hanna Leliv
Edited by Reilly Costigan-Humes

 

It was clear right from the start that no one was going anywhere. The clouds above the city had delivered rain while we sat in the kitchen, laughing and making plans—where to have dinner and what to do afterwards. Serhiy and I brought Richard along; Nadia and Radu joined us on the way. Three days in a southern city by the sea were even more precious, stolen from the country’s lat- est political events which all of us—as journalists or photographers—had been following incessantly for a long while, with not so much as a break for some sleep. Summer was underway, and we sensed that it wanted some water, but it was blood that summer wanted.

I met Richard two years ago in Hanoi. Every day at five in the morning, loudspeakers in the streets would blare upbeat songs—the Vietnamese going home from a hard day’s work had to listen to children’s voices praising the party. The Vietnamese returning from an easy day’s work and rolling by in their big cars couldn’t hear them. The loudspeakers had hardly fallen silent when the birds’ voices drowned them out: every coffee shop, every hotel, every hair salon, and, certainly, every grocery store in Hanoi had birds in cages. Cages clung to  the ceilings or the awnings over shop windows; cramped and narrow, they were lost in the tangled vines and electric cords. The birds were nowhere to be found, but twice a day—before sunset and sunrise—they reigned over the entire city for a few minutes.

One of our colleagues connected us. We agreed to meet near St. Joseph’s Cathedral and then roamed around this Vietnamese Notre Dame, so out of place amid all these noodles, palm trees, and conical hats, gradually getting to know each other. There were old frescos preserved in the church yard: the three Kings carrying their gifts across the desert. One of them pointed upward in wonder—look, Balthazar, look, Melchior, he seemed to say, a fern has sprouted where the star of Bethlehem should have been; what should we do now? And so, for many, many years, the three of them wandered around the desert, having lost sight of their landmarks—ferns grew on every single wall in Hanoi. An old woman, a street vendor with a bicycle loaded with fruit, stopped and took a rest nearby; she seemed to be sleeping standing up, her hat swaying, and its round shadow swaying to and fro on the stone slabs at her feet.

Richard was big and loud, American down to his fingertips; he was in a “Not My President” T-shirt, but, judging from its look and Richard’s political views, he’d had it ever since the previous president was in office. Richard was obsessed with the dead.

He had spent two months traveling along the Truong Son trail and visiting Vietnam War sites. Richard took photos of the living as if they were dead; he had a knack for finding the right positions and angles. In his photos, surfers taking naps on a breaker line looked like the dead bodies of soldiers left after a brutal battle, and tourists’ children squinting lazily—leaning against the walls of torture chambers, while their parents listened to tour guide—resembled little massacred Vietnamese bush fighters. Even a group of elderly Dutch people checking out of a hotel and walking to their bus looked like downcast refugees, and the one clumsily holding a large backpack looked as if he was holding a dead child.

Richard’s photos—all very strange and all about the living dead—were sold on photo stocks to well-known magazines. Even Time and Esquire bought them. Richard came from Seattle, and it was his first time abroad. At any rate, he was very young and treated the concept of death and chronicling dead bodies in the living world as glorification of fluidity and change, as an onslaught on wasting time, as social resistance and rebellion against everything that oppresses the vitality of the human body, and as many other things. We walked around all night long, and Richard kept babbling about death and groping for the camera on his neck, even though no one around us was dying, and he didn’t have to take any pictures. Instead, there were too many living, loud people—unfamiliar with the concept of personal space—scurrying by; the twilight was packed with people. They tried to sell us food from every window and stand; they gutted chickens     in all places imaginable, and slippery chicken hearts popped, snapped under our feet, spitting blood. I asked Richard if he had ever seen a dead person.

“My grandma, before she was cremated. I was nine then,” he answered gravely.

Richard emailed me after people paid their last respects to the fallen in February. He offered his condolences; the mourning song “Plyve Kacha” moved  him, and he looked up its translation on the Internet. He asked me what was going on, said he felt bad and was there for us, but I knew what was really on   his mind. He had sent some scanty words of support when it all started, and I appreciated that. He couldn’t miss out on so many dead people all in one place, though. I talked to Serhiy about it, and we invited him over.

When Richard arrived there were no dead people left—only those taken hostage, arrested, or missing. There was already mild fighting in eastern Ukraine, no refugees yet. This all looked unbearable to Richard, but what could we have done with him? He was plain bored, upset, like a little kid, that he missed the European Square, charred and blackened from the burnt rubber, Molotov cocktails, and shootings. Only drunkards and crackpots were left in the tents downtown. The foreign reporters, photographers, and cameramen he may have known had all dispersed right then for some reason. Richard was a new level for us in terms of nurturing tolerance toward “the others” who swarmed all over this world. He treated our deeply personal grief with purely consumerist curiosity, and we had to accept that, since, technically, he hadn’t done anything wrong. He strolled around the city for a few days, while we worked like dogs to process the sluggish developments in Eastern Ukraine, yet he took only one picture. A little boy —about four years old—had fallen down, having tripped over the cobblestones removed by the protestors in European Square, where traffic was still blocked. In Richard’s photo, the boy looked dead, hopelessly dead, the background showing heaps of memorial wreaths and blown-out lamps where people had been shot.

He must have been a genius, this Richard, a genius at documenting death where it seemed no longer present, a genius at pinning down death’s ubiquitous presence even where it wasn’t visible yet. At the very end of April, we escaped to Odessa, to the sea, and Richard came along.

We were sitting in the kitchen, laughing, almost till dawn—didn’t even bother to go out for dinner. Radu had some wine. We didn’t have anything to do the next day—no writing, no filming—and some rowdy soccer fans were planning a rally for later. Serhiy and Radu wanted to film it, and over the weekend we could go to the beach again and then head home.

We didn’t feel like getting up. Serhiy and I had been laying there, watching how much sunlight pushed through the young leaves on the trees outside. Radu and Nadia had gone into the kitchen of the large apartment we were renting and started laughing softly about something. Richard joined them shortly thereafter. Radu didn’t like Richard, but, then, he didn’t seem to like anyone at all; he was too smart to overlook others’ shortcomings and too honest to forgive or ignore them. Or maybe he was just a superstitious pesky, mean Romanian with whom—as with many others at that time—we’d crossed paths by chance only to part ways forever, also by chance.

We had breakfast in town and then went to the beach. We walked through an old botanical garden turned into a health resort for Ministry of Internal Affairs employees and their families. I went there on vacation as a kid, with my parents, but only in the spring—the summer months belonged to the officers ranked higher than my stepfather. There was no one around, only the ripe spring, abundant light, young greenery, and endless statues of discus throwers and girls holding oars.

“Lie on the ground,” Richard said to Nadia abruptly.

Nadia burst out laughing; she was always laughing no matter what was going on, and sometimes she really saved the day. You know, it’s like when you want to drop dead, and someone next to you is enjoying a sincere, light-hearted laugh, and then you want to a little less.

“What do you want?” Radu asked.

“Lie on the ground,” Richard repeated and smiled, and Nadia, laughing, tossed her backpack aside and sprawled out on the warm cobblestones. She kept laughing, making faces, and talking—about how warm the ground was and how blue the sky was. She couldn’t keep still or keep her mouth shut, not even for a second. Richard took only one photo and showed it to me. Back then, he shot right away in black-and-white. A dead woman lay on the cobblestones among the neglected alabaster statues and old trees, one leg turned up, as if she’d been running and some bullets had caught up to her and pierced her back, and now her bags lay off to the side. Serhiy also looked at it and said nothing. Amazing. Nadia was rising to her feet and brushing off her pants, laughing again, when Radu snatched the camera out of Richard’s hands.

“She’s dead. What did you do?” he shouted.

“She looks dead. Cool, isn’t it?” Richard said, but Radu went nuts for some reason.

“Let me see, please, let me see.” Nadia peered over Radu’s shoulder—he was pressing some buttons on Richard’s camera. Richard tried grabbing his camera back, but Radu suddenly shoved him, really hard. Radu was short, tenacious, and mad.

“Don’t shoot people like they’re dead. Don’t shoot my girlfriend like that. Got that?” he said, looking at Richard. He couldn’t figure out how to delete the photo.

“Let me see,” Nadia repeated.

Richard tried to snatch his camera back again, but Radu shoved him away even harder.

“Chill,” Serhiy said anxiously.

“I’m gonna smash it,” Radu said, holding the camera up in one hand. “I’m gonna smash it.”

“Give him his camera back,” Serhiy said, standing between the two of them.

“Okay,” Richard said, reaching for his camera. “I’ll delete it.”

Radu hesitated and then eventually handed him the camera. Serhiy was still standing between them.

“Deleting it, okay?” Richard said slowly, looking at Radu.

Silently, we went down to the beach, only Nadia let out the occasional giggle. The sea was so quiet and smooth as if it had been laying low—I’d only seen a sea like this at daybreak. But then the wind picked up, the water began to ripple, and a storm broke out. We wanted to hail a taxi but the seafront road was for pedestrians only, so we dashed through the rain to a restaurant. I was pissed that it wound up being much farther than Serhiy had thought when he suggested waiting out the storm there. Radu grew anxious because I wouldn’t shut up about the rain. Serhiy was irritated by Nadia’s incessant laughter. We finally made it to our apartment an hour and a half later, soaked and angry. We didn’t even talk to one another once we got back. It was a relief when someone called Serhiy and asked if he could do filming tomorrow—everyone agreed to pay for the apartment, get in the car, and be back home in four hours. It was only after we stuffed our backpacks in the trunk that Richard said suddenly: “I’m staying.”

“Are you sure?” I asked.

“I’ll be okay,” he said. “Just a couple of days.”

We hugged limply. Serhiy plopped down into the driver’s seat.

When he called me on Saturday, bright and early, I already knew about the clashes in Odessa, the fire at the Trade Unions House after the soccer fans’ march, and that more than forty people had died. I also knew for sure that Richard had been there. This was all we knew—only dead people and accusations, endless accusations, miraculous grounds for inciting hatred. By that time, we were no longer surprised.

“I’m catching a flight to Seattle tonight,” he said. “I get into Kyiv at 7:30. I need my suitcase.”

I texted him, asked him to come out of the terminal, as I would have to take him to the international departures anyway, and he did. I stopped, and he hopped in the back for some reason. He had no camera.

I saw in the rearview mirror that he was looking straight ahead, almost without blinking, that he hadn’t shaved and his lips were bloodless, like those of an old man. I didn’t ask him any questions. I thought about those things we had to and did get used to, those things that turned into everyday life, the daily grind, were like this only for us, remaining, basically, horrible and irreparable.

I parked near the international terminal. Richard took his suitcase out of the trunk, and we went to the check-in desk—or rather, he went, and I, for whatever reason, followed him. Inside, he stopped, turned toward me, and said, “All those people died for real. I saw them, less than two feet away from me, like this.” He waved his hand to show how close they were. “They died. Burned alive. Crashed.”

I listened to him in silence.

“Why?” he asked.

I didn’t say anything.

Leaving the terminal, I felt like it was me and the people around me who were dead, the ground under my feet strewn with chicken hearts.