Swinging his skinny legs out of his narrow bed, Olyinyk sat on the edge, momentarily suspended in the dream space between prayer and sleep. Then he rose and turned on his electric kettle, preparing a mug for his tea. As he waited for the water to boil, he thought of the strong black tea of his youth, a taste that still filled his sense memory though he had not tasted it for decades. America was a place that promised to fulfill any desire, yet it had been unable to fulfill his for the simple black tea of his childhood.

If someone had suggested to him when he was a young man that he would be where he was today – brewing weak American tea in his skivvies, an uncertain man of God and regrets – he would surely have thumped him. Back then, he had believed mostly in the Soviet State and the strength of men. Faith was a weakness, blander than the tea he now sipped, and regrets were like the pills of fuzz on his secondhand sweaters, something to be picked off and flicked away. Back there, weakness and regrets were not something one could afford very easily.

With face bent over his steaming cup, the chaplain stood lost in the details of his dream. The dense forest near Chernobyl he had once hunted in. The immense over-the-horizon radar installation called Duga that rose out of the Ukrainian forest’s midst. The wounded dog with the torn ear. The memory of the animal prompted his first prayer of the day. When the dog resisted banishment, Olyinyk continued his prayers, lips moving minutely with a different passage from Matthew 6:14. For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.

Olyinyk took a sip of his tea. He had come to believe that his dreams of Duga, a spiny super-structure that stretched 700 meters in length and rose 150 meters into the air, were a message from the universe – God, if one were so inclined –telling him that he must pay attention and similarly scan the atmosphere for signs. Olyinyk had more reason to believe this than most.

This thought reminded him. He rummaged through the pocket of the coat hanging over the back of the lone chair at the kitchen table. Olyinyk tugged his mobile phone free, pushing the gum wrappers and grocery receipts which also came out into a pile on the scratched Formica table top. He dialed his daughter.

“Papa,” she answered. Her tone was clipped and by this he knew that she was distracted with the other business of life. It was the curse of these cell phones that one could use them while doing other things. If the contemplative portion of his conversion had taught him anything, it was that this busyness, what the Americans called “multi-tasking,” was just another way to keep one’s mind unquestioning. It annoyed him that his daughter, old enough to remember how her own people used work to do the same, had so easily fallen under the sway of her new culture’s sleight-of-hand trick. He heard her cover the receiver and say something muffled, then her voice was clear again. “Papa, good morning. Is everything alright?”

“Yes, fine, fine.”

“You’re still coming to the school?  I’ve already told them you’re coming.”

He could tell from the way her voice was near, then far away, that she must be moving around. He imagined her phone wedged between her ear and shoulder. He heard a dinging sound that made him realize she was getting into her car, and then the metal thunk as she closed the car door.

“Yes, yes, zayushka. I will be there,” he told her quickly. He felt annoyed again that his daughter’s scurrying about was making him feel rushed. “I called only to say I had not heard from Maksym about picking me up.”

“Max, Papa,” she corrected him. He heard the vague metallic rumble of a garage door going up. “He knows. He will pick you up from work and bring you to the school this afternoon.”

The irony of Nadya asking him to talk to her students about the Soviet Union, the irony of Nadya teaching world history at all, was so rich he sometimes found himself pursing his lips as if it were one of the overly-sweet desserts these American children loved. It had been Nadya who slipped away to Hungary after her conniving mother – here he said a quick prayer for forgiveness again– had facilitated her marriage to a Party apparatchik, even though the girl was just sixteen. For Nadya’s escape from her husband, she had relied only upon her own cleverness and courage while on one of the junkets across the border, not long after the chaos of the revolutions of ‘89. From there, she had escaped to Poland, chaotic with newfound freedom, and it was here that she had found her second husband, an American businessman with some dim attachment to the trade division of the American diplomatic corps there, something to do with coal. Olyinyk didn’t even know if she’d told this one about the first. She certainly had not let the legal technicalities interfere with her plans. He had to hand it to the girl; she had been single-minded. But then she was his daughter and he would have expected nothing less. When Nadya’s letter offering to help him join her in the United States had arrived almost a decade after her departure, he’d had to look up where Pennsylvania was.

He couldn’t find the words to express the multitude of meanings he saw in his daughter’s request that he speak to her class, and so he grumbled about his grandson Max’s lack of protocol instead.

“He should confirm with me,” he said.

“Papa. He knows. He has even planned to stay to listen. Is there anything else? I really have to get going. We can talk more this afternoon, afterwards.”

“Maksym is staying?” he asked. In the silence that followed he heard the curtness of his own question, heard again the fierce man he’d once been who had frightened his wife into going to live at her sister’s, that man of ropey muscles and sunken cheeks. Was his daughter’s silence an apology or fear of offending? Worried, he swept the trash on the table into his palm and crushed it in his fist. Only then did he speak.

“No, no. This is fine, moya malenʹka lapka. Only I did not know.”

“He wants to know more about you, Papa,” Nadya said. “More about our lives before.”

Yes, well, no man deserves punishment for his thoughts, Olyinyk reminded himself.

On the bus ride to the nursing home where he worked, the chaplain gazed at the sturdy apartment buildings slipping past the window. As he so often did, he noted the people on the street with their similarly well-constructed clothes and their confident strides. He once would have walked with such confidence, too. Even four years before his daughter’s letter, he would have ignored it, still proud at being a skilled-enough hunter that the government had assigned him to deal with the animals in the exclusion zone around the failed Chernobyl.

But by the time he got her invitation, his comrade Bondarenko’s hair had fallen out from wearing a rabbit-fur hat he’d bought at a market in the exclusion zone. Hunting was no longer the pleasure it had once been, and the animals, even the turtles and fish in the aquariums in the empty flats, had all become frequent nightly visitors in his dreams. By then, too, he had killed and gutted more than one wild boar from the Zone for some old woman looking to feed a gathering, and he had seen how the animal livers melted in his hands like pudding. So even before receiving her letter, Olyinyk had begun to think that a new country devoid of the killing cynicism of his own might be worth considering.

The chaplain sighed and pulled the string above his seat to indicate he wanted to get off at the next stop. Nadya was well-aware that the story of the botched containment was a sort of shorthand for a larger story of the strong, proud country he had known collapsing with the same terrifying results as Chernobyl had. With the overzealousness of a new immigrant, perhaps she even hoped for him to indict their old country by revealing the part he’d played in hunting down the exposed animals. Still, she had not told him that his grandson was to be present, and Max knew nothing of this part of his grandfather’s life. Perhaps this was why he had dreamed of Duga last night. Was Maksym the sign he was supposed to look for?

To his annoyance, this worry pursued him throughout the day, even in the moments when it was his duty to empty himself of personal thoughts and become instead a receiver of the same kind as the towering radar array he frequently dreamed of. Yet even as he sat with his dying patient that morning, the chaplain found himself unable to concentrate and kept returning to his dream of Duga. He had to shake himself repeatedly from thoughts of the enormous structure with its barbed cylindrical elements like overturned metal birdcages. To him, the array had looked like some spiked gate meant to keep out the giant Balachko his grandmother told stories about when he’d been a child.

Each time he drifted, Olyinyk would remind himself that he must be completely present for his clients. Nonetheless, called upon to listen rather than speak, he would find his mind wandering again a few minutes later, thinking about the fog in his dream which had not existed in real life, or how this change lent the dream an eeriness that, in real life, had been closer to awe as he’d stood in front of the super-structure that stretched more than half a kilometer through the forest that hid it. The discomfort he had felt in his neck as he tipped his head back trying to see the top of the array was replicated in the dream, but the uncanny, high-pitched hum of the wind moving through the spiny electronic elements was a more noticeable presence in his dream than it had been in fact. It had only been upon coming out of the trees and facing the large chain-link fence surrounding the military installation that he had realized that he had been hearing this wraithlike sound all along, a tensile supernatural whistle like the drawing of a fingernail down a thin guitar string.

Realizing that the dying man had stopped talking, the chaplain raised his eyes to see the man gazing thoughtfully out the window at the lagoon in the center of the hospice garden. Olyinyk did not move to fill the silence immediately, knowing that he could at any time ask the sick man whether he wanted to pray and that this would cover his momentary inattentiveness.

People often took Olyinyk’s silence as piousness. As thoughtfulness. His reluctance to speak served him well in his position as a counselor and hearer of last thoughts. But it was borne of the difficulty of acquiring a new language so late in life and nothing else. His English, when he spoke, was deeply accented. He still had to think of how to express shades of meaning in his new language, and so he went carefully and slowly, and thus appeared thoughtful and slow to judge.

Even now, he kept a tiny disguised dictionary in his pocket. Ashamed of having to admit he didn’t know a word when he had first learned English, he had removed the plastic cover that identified the book as a dictionary and inserted the block of pages into the cover of a miniature psalter instead. In this way, he sometimes appeared to be studying a passage of scripture when he was really learning a new word.

He remembered learning the word secret, how he had been struck by both its lesser-known definition as an inaudible prayer traditionally said before mass, and that its root, secretus, was comprised of other words meaning “apart” and “to sift.” Thus, the word secret had roots meaning to separate and distinguish. He thought often of this as he listened to the, until-now, unspoken regrets of the people he ministered to at the end of their lives, considering how their secrets kept them separate from their loved ones, and did, in fact, distinguish one person from another.

In fact, he had been thinking of this the previous day in the midst of an awkward family moment between his client, Mr. Joseph, and his sister as she pleaded with him to allow their brother to come visit. The formidable sister had brought her Bible with her to give the request the force of religiosity. Mr. Joseph had borne her pleading placidly until she began talking about forgiveness. At this, the dying man had snapped at her like a flag in a desert wind, declaring he was done talking about it.

“She thinks I am just stubborn.” Mr. Joseph turned his face to Olyinyk now, his nasal cannula pulling loose with the motion. Olyinyk reached out to readjust the tubing, acutely aware of the man’s intent eyes on him as he did. Mr. Joseph waited for him to sit back again. “Maybe I am,” he continued. “Maybe I should have told her why I won’t.”

The chaplain, hearing this as a query, thought it best to say something noncommittal. In such moments, he had found that many of his grandmother’s folk sayings doubled as wisdom. He searched his memory for one as he rounded one hand into the palm of the other.

“In Russia, we say…,” he paused, silently asking his Ukrainian grandmother to forgive him this geographical sleight-of-hand. It was easier to say “Russia” to Americans whose knowledge of the European continent was defined by the Cold War. “‘To him that you tell your secret, you resign your liberty.’ God doesn’t require us to share our reasons with other humans.”

Olyinyk deliberately left out what he had been taught, that God’s requirement was only to share one’s reasons with Him. The chaplain’s charge was to be a counselor and Godly representative should the dying want it, but it was not to push religion on people. His job at the nursing home was only to accompany the patients on their journeys out of this world.

He had found that there were as many ways to make this exit as there were kinds of people in the world. Some went gracefully, and some went angrily. Some went regretfully, and others went gratefully. Some were surrounded by people who loved them, and others were alone. And there were those who went still holding onto their earthly secrets, while others wished to leave all that behind them when they went. It had always surprised him who made their peace with death, and who held a grudge and fought all the way out. He waited now to see which kind of person the dying man was.

Mr. Joseph searched Olyinyk’s face. He licked his lips as he thought and then began to cough. The sound was painfully dry, a rasp of emery across wood.

“Some water?” Olyinyk offered, taking the cup from the table next to the bed and placing the straw in Mr. Joseph’s mouth. He held it steady as the man took a sip. This act of generosity seemed to make up Mr. Joseph’s mind. He began haltingly to speak.

Olyinyk nodded as he listened, careful to maintain his look of serene anticipation. The chaplain had practiced this expression in the mirror a great deal when he had first started working in hospice care. It was different from blankness. It was not indifference, either. It was an expression of expectation, of waiting. It was, if he could describe it, an expression of absence: absence of judgment, absence of narrowness, absence of surprise. At first, he had tried to create an expression that spoke of compassion, but he found that there were things he heard in his capacity that made this hard, and so he practiced showing gentle expectation instead.

Mr. Joseph’s eyes went dark as he told the chaplain about his troubled relationship with his brother, and, as if the memory was a physical thing exiting his body, his breath caught in his chest at one point and the coughing began again. He brushed away Olyinyk’s alarmed hand and continued until the story was completed. The two men sat in silence for several minutes. The effort to speak had been replaced by exhaustion. Olyinyk observed how the man had seemingly deflated under the sheet, like the vanishing of a magician’s dove from under its master’s handkerchief. There would be no more talking today.

“Would you like me to pray?” Olyinyk asked. The man in the bed blinked, and the chaplain took this as assent. He rose to stand by the bedside. “I would like to say this first,” Olyinyk told him. “I am reminded of a saying, Pravda u vodi ne tone i v ohni ne horyt. It is hard to translate. It means the truth does not drown in water or burn in fire.”

Perplexed, Mr. Joseph’s eyebrows knit.

“It is a way of saying that truth cannot be destroyed,” Olyinyk explained. The chaplain let this sink in, and then he reached to take Mr. Joseph’s hand in his own and began to pray for the dying man.

Later, in Max’s car, Olyinyk sat wondering about the indestructibility of truth as he stared at his grandson’s hands on the steering wheel. There was a faint scar on the back of one that he had never noticed before. There were freckles on Max’s arms, a blond dusting that repeated itself across the boy’s broad cheeks, his mother’s Slavic bone structure made wide with American stock. He was a friendly-looking boy with hair the color of the winter wheat of Olyinyk’s homeland.

Olyinyk tried to ignore the lack of seriousness that seemed to afflict all American teenagers, the air of insouciance and well-being they carried with them in their ignorance of hardship. In Ukraine, Max might already have been in the army by this age. A remembrance of the mildewed smell of socks that never dried completely came to Olyinyk as he thought about the tent he had shared with the other hunters in his team. He could still feel the heft of the rifle he had carried. In his memory – or perhaps from his dreams – he heard the echo of the rifle report ringing through abandoned villages. Sighing, Olyinyk rubbed his stomach as they pulled into the high-school where Nadya taught.

“Alright, Dedulya?” Max asked as he pulled into a parking space. A rush of good feeling went through the chaplain hearing his native language in his grandson’s mouth. At least Nadya had taught him that.

“Yes, moj mal’chik, thank you. I was thinking about my talk.”

Max laughed. “Don’t tell me you’re nervous.” He put the car into park and turned off the engine, turning to his grandfather with a teasing smile. “You, the big hunter, who has faced down wild boar and bear. They’re only tenth-graders.”

Olyinyk reached over and cuffed the boy playfully on the side of the head. Max laughed again, and Olyinyk found himself taking the boy’s nearest hand and holding it between his own just as he had Mr. Joseph’s earlier. The skin on the old man’s palm had been rough and dry like a cat’s tongue but thin as tissue paper on the back of his hand. Olyinyk thought that truth was sometimes the same.

Big hunter. Olyinyk heard these words like a taunt in his head. He and the others had been chosen for the mission because they were hunters, but they had only been hunters of household pets who had lost their fear of man and came willingly to the sound of human voices even as, with rifles, they had put them down one by one. The creatures that retained a semblance of wildness, the rabbits and otters, they let free despite their orders to destroy the animals.  The cats stared, or else darted past and hid under furniture, but dogs understand and you could see how their understanding went from hopefulness to fear and betrayal.

Olyinyk turned his grandson’s hand over in his own to look at the unblemished palm, aware that there would be a price to pay for telling the story he wanted. That was a story of a mutt with the torn ear and how it had struggled to get free from the crush of dead animals in the truck, and how, so successful a day had they had, that not one of the hunters had a bullet left to kill the wounded creature, and how the wounded dog had managed to free itself and run away into the woods, and that Olyinyk, seeing the others were exhausted and demoralized with the work, sent them back to the impromptu army camp nearer Pripyat and volunteered to track the animal and kill it, and that he had followed the cries of the injured dog until he came out of the trees with the eerie radar array Duga there before him stretching to each horizon like some industrial nightmare and the dog lying panting at the fence with blood-matted fur the color of his grandson’s hair, and how he noticed then that it had one torn ear and that it would never rise from the place it had sunken down and saw nothing further was necessary on his part, and how the dog had looked at him with such awareness in its eyes that he had dreamed of it, and Duga, forever after, and how he went to sit by its side while it died, stroking its torn ear back against its head and waiting for the whole thing to be over.

“How did you get this scar?” Olyinyk asked the child of his child, swallowing the memory and taking out his absence mask and putting it over his face.

Max twisted his hand to look at the scar with interest. “Hmm,” he said. “To be honest, I don’t remember, Deda. I think I was very young when it happened. Mom would probably know.”

Olyinyk rubbed a thumb across the scar and then patted the boy’s hand and released it. He understood that these American children, with their brand names and full plates, would draw away from him in horror and disgust if he told his story, that the look in his grandson’s eyes would change like the dogs had when they realized that the humans they thought had come to save them were coming instead to kill them. He knew that he could tell them about the vodka with a spoonful of goose shit in it they drank to protect themselves from the radiation and the child-sized gas masks and the forty-five seconds of terror of the first Liquidators and then the ongoing terror of waiting in the years after for the tap of sickness, when every hair in the sink and unexplained bloody nose was a sign that had to be understood in the larger context of the Exclusion Zone, how all of them had become finely attuned to listen for and read these signals, but that in the end, these human sufferings would not matter the way the suffering of a dog with a torn ear did to them.

His grandson’s scar was a story, too, of some past injury and misfortune, like his own, but also not, since it could be ignored or forgotten and did not ultimately speak to the morality of the bearer in the way Olyinyk’s former job and being a citizen of a country who had let such a thing happen did. He thought that it was perhaps his punishment to see how the look in his grandson’s face would change knowing his grandfather’s story, and also that, perhaps, given his participation in those events at Chernobyl, it was right he be punished. He patted Max’s hand again in a gesture of comfort the boy could not yet understand. Then he pushed open his door and rose from the car, prepared to do his penance.

Elizabeth Rosen is a former children’s television writer, waitress, academic, receptionist, world-traveler, and dog-lover. In the company of her loyal hounds, she writes both mainstream and speculative fiction. Her favorite drink is diet coke, with coffee coming in a tight second. Her favorite music is anything from the early 80’s that depended heavily on synthesizer. Her favorite place is anywhere books congregate. Follow her at Instagram at @thewritelifeliz.