Clark Zlotchew is the author of a short-story collection, Once Upon a Decade: Tales of the Fifties (Comfort, 2011), which was one of three finalists in the Next Generation Indie Book Awards, 2011. Recent fiction of his has appeared in literary journals in the U.S., U.K., Australia, Canada and Ireland from 2016 through 2018.
Voyage to Fulfillment
Meredith Green had a recurring dream in which she stood by the window, peering into the fog. She felt the imminence of an event of great personal importance. The murky atmosphere prevented her from seeing anything but her own image reflected in the window pane. As she gazed, the fog began to dissipate. Through the glass, darkly, she glimpsed a figure that began to take shape. The mist swirled and thinned even more, allowing her to discern a little blonde girl who wiped her teary blue eyes with the back of her hands and began to smile. Meredith could still see her own reflection superimposed on the girl beyond the glass. The child held out her arms to Meredith, who longed to reach through the window pane and embrace the little one. Lately the dream came to her with increasing frequency. Perhaps the dream would cease when she and Paul went on vacation and were distracted by new experiences.
# # #
It was Mothers’ Day in the U.S., but Paul and Meredith were on a tour of Ukraine. She and Paul were depressed about being childless, and could not endure this holiday back home in Michigan, where the atmosphere was saturated with this annual celebration of motherhood. Wherever they looked, their senses were assailed by advertisements on television and store windows offering bonbons, cozy pajamas, aprons bearing the written message Best Mom Ever, drinking mugs bearing similar messages, and a host of items for the occasion. The commercials for these items –the holiday itself—made Meredith feel inadequate as a woman, guilty of some nameless crime. She viewed each commercial as an indictment, a mockery. Paul kept reassuring her that it was not her fault that ovarian cancer had forced her to have a life-saving hysterectomy, thus rendering her unable to bear children. The important thing was that the surgery had saved her life. He kept telling her, reassuring her, that he loved her. Still, Meredith could no longer bear the atmosphere of Mothers’ Day. It filled her with a sense of failure, of loss, of guilt. Intellectually, she knew those feelings were irrational, but on the emotional level could not dispel them. She needed to be in some distant location where no one ever heard of Mothers’ Day. A place where even if there was a celebration of mothers, it would be in a language she did not understand, preferably in an alphabet she could not read. She and Paul had chosen Ukraine.
# # #
They aimlessly wandered through the crowds of downtown Kremenchug, a city on the Dnieper River, observing the locals in their daily pursuits. People were rushing this way and that on the litter-strewn streets, to lunch, to work, shopping. No one seemed to smile. Their faces were tense, reflecting hard times. The smell of exhaust fumes combined with the raucous roar of a useless car muffler to fray Meredith’s nerves. The sidewalk was covered in newspaper pages, discarded advertising pamphlets, scraps of paper, empty cigarette packs, cigarette butts and chewing gum wrappers. The whole area had a seedy look to it. A pale little girl of about eight years old, wearing a threadbare green dress, suddenly appeared among the swirling crowd. It suddenly struck Meredith that she looked familiar. Why? She had never been within a thousand miles of that city. Yet the feeling was inescapable, uncanny.
The child took up a position in the middle of the sidewalk, and began distributing advertising flyers. Is it legal in Ukraine for children to work? Meredith wondered. Where was her mother? Did she even have a living mother? Did she have a father? The American woman glanced at the display window of a pharmacy behind the girl and saw, as through a glass, darkly, her own reflection with Paul at her side. Her feeling of déjà-vu intensified.
The crowds of people surged past the little girl, almost trampling her. She’s a buoy in a raging sea, a tiny island in a swiftly flowing river, Meredith thought. Some disregarded the child while others unsmilingly accepted the flyer without even looking at her, and many of these soon tossed the flyer onto the sidewalk. The girl’s blonde head was bowed. She steadily kept her eyes fixed on the filthy sidewalk while extending her hand, offering the flyer to the anonymous passersby. She looks so downhearted, so forlorn, Meredith thought. Then she detected a definite reaction when people, without reading the flyer, without even glancing at it, tossed it aside, to land at her feet. She would snap her head up sharply to cast a withering glare at the person who discarded it. Meredith perceived an unmistakable flicker of anger in the girl’s face. Anger! But why would she even care? she wondered. It shouldn’t matter to her whether people actually read the flyers or not.
She asked Paul, “Why would the poor child care whether people read the flyers or not?”
“I guess she’s taking it personally. She must feel it’s a rejection, a slap in the face. Like they’re getting rid of her.” He shifted his eyes from Meredith back to the girl. “Look, no one says a word to her. No one smiles at her. No one even looks at her, for heaven’s sake. She must feel like garbage, like a complete zero, poor kid. You know, it takes guts to stand out there like that and be treated like a lump of dog turd.”
Meredith looked at the little waif, and observed that she wore a frown and stared at the ground as she held out the flyers. A depressed child in a depressing town. On a sudden impulse, she stepped forward and took a flyer from the girl –a flyer she couldn’t read– gave her a big smile, and in the smidgeon of Russian she had learned, said, in the most enthusiastic, the most ebullient tone, “Spasiba, dievichka!” (Thank you, little girl!) The child raised her blue eyes to meet Meredith’s. The little girl’s gleaming smile, in that bleak atmosphere, was like the sun bursting through grey clouds after a rain storm. Meredith felt a soothing warmth envelop her.
The American woman didn’t know enough Russian to have any kind of conversation with the little girl. She couldn’t ask her about her parents or anything else of importance. She and Paul waved goodbye to her, turned and walked toward their riverboat. After proceeding a few yards, Meredith stopped and caught Paul’s sleeve. They both turned to look back at the child. The girl still had her hand extended to the passersby, offering the flyers, but her wistful gaze followed the American couple. Her face gradually lost its smile. She turned and looked down at the litter-strewn sidewalk once more. Meredith felt as though the sun were eclipsed, as though the world were plunged into darkness. She suddenly sensed a chill in the air.
The American couple had twenty minutes to return to the riverboat. They reluctantly trudged toward the docks, as though in slow motion, as though slogging through a field of mud up to their calves.
Meredith murmured, “We came here to escape my depression, and now I’m more depressed than ever.”
Paul looked at her, put his arm around her shoulders, and pressed her to him as they walked.
# # #
Back home in Ann Arbor, unpacking their luggage, Paul said, “Hey, Meredith, look at this.”
She saw some kind of paper in his hand. “What’s that,” she asked.
“I don’t know. It’s written in Cyrillic. We must have forgotten to throw it in the trash while packing.”
“Let me see it, Paul,” she said as she snatched it from his hands. She opened the flyer and saw a photograph of several rows of children, ranging in age from three to ten years of age. Suddenly, the color drained from her face and then immediately flushed to ruby red.
Paul noticed the change in her complexion and, alarmed, said, “Merry, what is it?”
She showed him the photo and placed her index finger on the face in the middle of the group. She shifted her gaze from the picture to her husband’s face.
His eyes widened. “Is that the… Could it be…?”
“It is, I’m sure of it.”
“Okay,” said Paul, “tomorrow I’m going to the university to ask Professor Granovsky to tell me what it says.”
# # #
The professor had informed them that it was a leaflet asking for people to adopt orphans. A week later, the couple braved the rainstorm and dashed into the Ukrainian Consulate in Detroit to arrange for adoption of eight-year-old Dasha and her three-year-old brother Bogdan.
As they left the Consulate, Meredith beamed at her husband, and gushed, “Oh, Paul, it’s a dream come true.”
© 2019 Clark Zlotchew