The International Writers Magazine: Extract from 'Losing Laika' - a novel in progress
The years passed. Nearly three and, as Andrei wrote, the war was dragging on endlessly and kept him there. He mentioned that fighting the mujahideen seemed as impossible as eradicating a fungus. Even if they won every battle with the guerrillas, the enemy seemed to live another day and always popped up elsewhere.
He wanted to get away. If only for a few weeks, back to Gorod, but his commander wasn't authorizing any leaves. They were always short helicopter pilots.
When Pyotr read that letter, he surmised that morale among the Soviet censors must have been sagging too: Unlike Andrei's early letters, this one had not a single black expurgation.
So, for the Motherland, Andrei sacrificed, as did the family who never saw him after he left for combat. Not his wife, Yelena, not his parents, Pyotr and Olga, or importantly, not his son, Gleb Andreyev Kravets--the son he only knew by pictures Yelena mailed every month. Gleb would have his second birthday in a month and more than the daily mayhem of war, not seeing, not holding little Gleb kept Andrei awake nights.
Weekends with no daycare meant toddler Gleb had to be watched over, which Olga would help Yelena do. But, on occasion, Pyotr pitched in, leaving Yelena and Olga free to do something together, away from work. Last Sunday, they'd seen a movie.
That Sunday, however, in early June of 1980, Pyotr and Olga left Yelena with Gleb and set off for the Plato Cinema downtown.
After walking from the Metro Pobeda stop, they joined the queue outside the ticket booth. Pyotr glanced at the marquee. Countryside Love. "What?" He pressed his palm to his temple. Olga and Yelena had just seen the picture. "You're seeing this again. Last Sunday, you saw this!" he said.
"It's okay." Olga paused, nodding toward the woman in front of them. "She says the picture this week didn't arrive. So they play this again. Held it over."
"Held over?" Pyotr didn't know what to do. He had no desire to see Countryside Love. A movie for women. Romantic, gushy.
But then, what else would they do on the Sunday afternoon, if he got stubborn? Olga didn't mind a second time. Last Sunday, she and Yelena were still talking about it when they got back to the flat.
"It's fine," Pyotr said, realizing he'd only create more trouble than what he had to endure. What were a few kopecks for tickets anyway? They'd spent fare for the Metro and would have to pay to go back, so what if they spent a bit more for this stale entertainment?
Before long, in comfortable balcony seats, Pyotr took orders for popcorn and fizzy drinks.
When he got back, the lights had dimmed. People distractedly munched away on handfuls of popcorn. In the dark, Pyotr let his mind drift away from his usual Sunday worries about Andrei in Afghanistan.
It helped when the last light went out and the projector started up, the curtains pulled apart, and numbers, counting down, flashed on the screen.
SUMMER OLYMPICS IN MOSCOW. The title of the first newsreel, out-sized letters flooding the screen. Pyotr felt his chest rise with pride. This was what the Motherland waited for. The Russian people were playing host to the most important sporting event in the world. Pyotr beamed. This was not Countryside Love!
Strains of the National Anthem of the Soviet Union, then the newsreader excitedly said, "Wednesday, in Moscow's Luzhniki Stadium, especially built for this year's Summer Olympics, the opening ceremonies featured Sergey Belov, a member of the Soviet Olympic basketball team, who lit the Olympic torch--"
On the screen, a runner raced out a stadium portal onto the chalk-striped, oval track, holding the flaming torch on high, and circuited the entire stadium. The newsreel camera zoomed in, capturing his face, his pure elation.
Pyotr glanced sideways at Olga, no big sports fan. Then catching her eye, he smiled. This was still a Russian moment for the history books.
How could he have been at the stadium up there for this? Where would he have gotten tickets? They were so hard to get. Perhaps Viktor could have helped. He was sure Viktor managed to go with Svetlana. They both were sports fans.
He slumped in his seat, munched more popcorn. He had to be content to pass up any days in Moscow, so glorious for the Motherland. Instead, he was stuck in an audience for a romantic movie coming up.
His mind turned wistful.
"Notably absent from the Moscow Olympics, with more than one hundred of the world's nations participating, is the United States of America. American athletes have trained long and hard to be here in Moscow and they wanted badly to compete, but at the last minute the American Olympic Committee pulled its athletes out.
"President Jimmy Carter announced as long as Russian troops are in Afghanistan, no American athletes would go to Moscow.
"TASS was curious about how the American athletes felt, so we called one on the phone. Here is Jamal Jordan from Berkeley, California:"
A photograph of the dark-complexioned American runner filled the screen.
"What is your event, Jamal?"
"Oh, you call me J. J. Yeah, I run the hundred meter."
Pyotr stared at him, at how his bushy hair seemed as wide as his shoulders. How does he run with hair like that?
"And how do you feel, J. J., about not being able to compete in Moscow?"
"It's a slap in the face. We all trained hard. Why we be singled out? Man, do I look like a puppet for U-S-A foreign policy?"
"Are you saying you're not proud of your country's action?"
"Of course not. How could I be?"
"Why do you say that?"
"Uh, it's not like America always does right, know what I mean? This boycott is stupid."
"So, J. J., you think it's wrong to mix sports and national politics?"
"I don't think anything Russia does with Afghanistan is anywhere near what my country done. I mean, how do you spell Vietnam?" The speaker on the other end of the phone laughed.
As did Pyotr.
The American runner had it right. His country was wrong-headed to stay out of the Summer Olympics because of Afghanistan. Pyotr shook his head.
If Andrei wasn't in Afghanistan, how he would have liked to have been at this Moscow Olympics with him--even little Gleb too--up there in Luzhniki Stadium for just one event. To feel that electricity, that Russian pride, surging through the air, the crowds, their feet stomping the stadium floor boards into a crescendo, into a deafening roar.
Pyotr looked over at Olga again. Oh, women, they have not the interest in sports like men. They want beauty, the human side of it. How graceful is the gymnast Nadia, that sort of thing, but as for following the competitions, that's for men.
"Russia is expected to do well in these Olympics," the newsreader said over more clips of the opening ceremonies, the Olympic flame burning brightly on an elevated platform at one end of the stadium, the panned shots of the crowds cheering, and the mesmerizing chalked, parallel lines that ran around the track.
Pyotr let the screen images sink into his memory, as if by doing so, he might save them for Andrei too. A tear welled in his right eye. The parade of athletes began, each country's team led by one of their own--two hands, extended arms--presenting their national flag. The teams marched through the stadium entrance around the striped track, Greece first, then one country after another in alphabetical order. Russia, however, was saved for last. As host country, the finale, always.
"The Russian Olympic team is made up of four hundred eighty-eight athletes," the newsreader said. Pyotr peered intently, as if he were actually in the stadium, not sitting in a theater seat, munching popcorn. The Russian flag, hammer and sickle of the working man, held aloft by Boris Guzunov, weightlifter, was in front. The tear rolled down Pyotr's right cheek. How he would have liked to have Andrei standing beside him in that stadium, both of them yelling away into the roar of the crowd for the Motherland's greatness to host such an event.
The National Anthem of the Soviet Union rose as the newsreader made a final comment and signed off from Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow. Hands waving on a sea of faces lingered in Pyotr's eyes for the longest time, knowing he could have been there, if only Andrei had a military leave, if only he had convinced Viktor to get him some tickets with his blat--his pull--if only ...
The camera drew back and rose, taking in all Luzhniki Stadium, holding more than one hundred thousand strong that late afternoon on Saturday. The camera climbed higher, taking in the skyline of Moscow, the Kremlin towers and St. Basil's patterned bulbs looming in the distance, and then the clouds.
The billowy white clouds.
* * *
The cumulus puffs floated like buoys in the pristine blue sky, pierced only by the jagged peaks of the Hindu Kush range.
The air stopped moving. No breezes. Just the insistent hiss of flames licking at his fractured Mi-24 gunship. The chopper took an incoming missile seconds before. Exploded and dropped like a stone to the floor of the mountain pass. Foreign voices in the trees, unsure where. Came down with a thump. Releasing himself from the seat belt and rolled off the pilot seat. His gunner, seated beside him, a bloody pulp of raw meat. He almost puked. The missile hit the side of his ship, on the red star emblem painted right over the oil tank. That's why.
The flames hissed, licked at the wreckage, leaped higher. Fuel was leaking from the tank. Soon, the full nineteen hundred liters of kerosene would ignite. Those foreign voices were waiting for the finale. Waiting for the explosion. His gunner should have opened fire at the glint they saw on the side of the mountain, above them, but he ignored it. A glint from rock mica, he'd said. Then they knew otherwise. Must have been a shoulder-launched missile pointing down at them. Should have fired and wondered later.
They ran out of luck. But his comrades would fight on. The mujahideen were no match for Soviet military might. He would be sitting the fight out for now. Lying in a hospital somewhere. But he didn't send out an S-O-S.
He needed the medics. A warm wetness wept under the flight suit across his chest. He felt odd.
His head lolled sideways. Not more than five meters away, he saw part of the casing of the missile. The rear fins, three of them, a tripod of ailerons. One had a flag. Red and white stripes, white stars on blue. America.
He wanted so badly to get home, to see Gleb, to see Yelena. But that would wait. He had to sleep a while. His jaw loosened. His eyes went dull.
© Charlie Dickinson September 2015
Read Charlie Dickinson's story collection, The Cat at Light's End, also available as an ebook
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