That morning, I met with Oleg in the house in the valley at the bottom of the steep road that nobody with any sense would ever try to drive up, the one carved straight up the side of the hill because people in that part of the world had apparently never heard of switchbacks.
I remember thinking about that road, about how precarious it was, and yet at some point it had been built by people who thought it was a worthwhile idea, and at some point it had been used by people who were not nearly as afraid of gravity as I was. As Oleg was.
For ourselves, we’d made our way to the valley, individually, by way of the footpaths that had been beaten through the weeds by marchers over time, by the consensus of the people who needed to go up and down that hill and who had chosen the same, relatively safe paths.
Oleg had gotten there before me. He was being paid hourly, and so he made it there before anyone else so he could claim he’d gotten there any time that he’d thought we’d believe. I was paid in food, shelter, and gratitude, and so I got there when it suited me. He’d already been there two hours, or so he told me.
The sun was still suggesting morning; the heat was noticeable, but comfortable.
There was a stray dog wandering along the dirt road that had once serviced Ladas, carting furtive peasants around the valley ring below the erstwhile fort at the top of the hill. The road was mostly overgrown; now and then, someone would manage to force a car along it, the crunching of stripped gears punctuating their attempts, but for the most part, it was a footpath now. Another footpath, through a gash in the world that technology had forgotten about.
We were to pull weeds. It was a Sisyphusian task: The nettles were up to my waist, and we without gloves were rasping our skin raw. After two days, it looked like we had barely made a dent. We had cleft a path to the front door of the house. That was it.
That was where I found Oleg, taking his break. His breaks were as long as his work periods, which was the Ukrainian way. Or so he told me. Or so, at least, I think he told me, because his broken English was barely serviceable and my Ukrainian, then as now, non-existent.
“I’m don’t know,” he said, wiping the back of his hand against his forehead. “This house. Is not good.”
I stepped through the threshold. This had once been someone’s life. Most likely, a dacha, a summer home. Someplace to put up one’s feet for a few months, to catch snatches of solitude and relative peasant comforts before the Soviet Russians had come and claimed them as communal property. And then, of course, left them alone. Left them to go back to the elements.
This had once been someone’s life. If the walls could have talked, they would have sighed wistfully and waxed nostalgic. But now, the walls were barely recognizable as such, with chunks of plaster and wood missing entirely, or collapsed onto the floor.
This was the living room, but I could look straight up and see the cloudless blue sky above me.
“Do they really want us to sleep here?” I asked, mostly rhetorically.
“I’m don’t know,” Oleg said again. He was just the hired help. We were just the American scholars whose hotel fees had gotten too expensive for City Hall. This was just their attempt at an idea, a building they possessed because the Soviet Union had willed it to them after its demise.
I tore at a stinging nettle that was growing up through the living room floor. I pulled it, caressed it, considered the ball of dirt that was snowing onto my feet.
“This place needs to be torn down,” I said. It was not a decision that was within my power to make.
Oleg laughed, then stood up and went back outside (which is to say, back to the other side of the doorway). I heard him start to hum a happy Ukrainian song as he went back to pulling weeds.
This was the decision point: This was the message. We never did sleep in that house. We wound up staying in what had been a low-level government office of some sort, a miserable and dusty place with gaping holes in the walls, no climate control, unreliable electricity, and an outhouse out back that we shared with the clothing factory next door.
The message was: No more hotel. The other message was: Don’t complain about the quarters we give you, because we can give you worse.
Looking back, I wonder what happened to that dacha. Sometimes I think that we were the last humans sanctioned to visit it, its last gasp to be connected, officially, with human hands. As I drive through Detroit and see its gutted skeletons, the tendon my soul has with that lonely dacha gets tugged just a little bit.
Just a little.