“May shit be on your hair.”
Offering a gesture beneath her years, the matriarch waddled painfully back into her cottage. Tetyana offered the curse’s recipient an awkward smile: her husband’s mouth opened and closed in incredulous exasperation.
“That was a new one,” he finally blustered as they headed home.
“Hmm. Farsi I think.”
Grandmamma seemed to be collecting insults from around the globe; she was depleting her stock with increased regularity since the death of her son, Tetyana’s father, two months ago.
Tetyana and Oleksiy Poroshenko braced themselves against the familiar cold wind and trudged arm-in-arm.
“Just because I once owned a computer doesn’t mean I can fix hers,” he protested.
The undulating Carpathian Mountains rippled before them; a patchwork collage of white, green and grey beneath the dirty sky. Days like this reminded Tetyana of the moment Papa had shot down the warplane some ten years previously.
* * * *
Fuelled by escalatory protagonism, conflict had rumbled around them: nothing more than distant thunder on the wind. Yet a soldier arrived on horseback, reporting that the enemy owned the sky, and that country folk were encouraged to take opportunistic pot shots.
Eleven-year-old Tetyana was walking back with Papa Chovnik from the expansive Rohanianske pasture with a freshly slaughtered lamb.
“… but Papa.”
“Mmm?” the man grunted as he adjusted the animal on his back.
“Oleksandr at school said that there are no elephants in the mountains; only Bialy Sloń.”
Bialy Sloń – “white elephant” – was a Polish observatory on Mount Chorna Hora, abandoned in the previous world war to the Red Army, who relinquished it to the Wehrmacht, then gifted to the Hungarian army, before being left to the lichen.
Maintaining his stride, Papa Chovnik pursed his lips beneath his beard and fixed her a sideways glance.
“Oleksandr is a fool,” he muttered. “Cover your ears!”
Releasing the lamb, he dropped to one knee, raising his rifle in a fluid motion. Not knowing whether to kneel also, young Tetyana’s eyes followed the direction of the raised barrel.
A jet soundlessly traversed the valley beneath them; diminished by distance, its wings jerked from the vertical to the horizontal as it maneuvered beneath radar. Papa pulled the trigger as the dopplered roar of its engines arrived deceptively in its wake. Attenuated through her hands, the rapid gradient of sound was punctuated by the single retort that resonated through the valley.
Later, children used the swinging body of the ejected pilot as a human piñata: primal retribution for anecdotal atrocities. Papa made Tetyana promise that she would never tell of his involvement.
“Never forget the white elephant; he will remember you.”
Papa Chovik was himself dispatched by a lucky sniper a week before Tetyana’s wedding.
That night, a battered laptop was discovered outside Grandmamma’s abode, nestling in the hollowed indent of a colossal footprint.
* * * *
When the town’s generator ran out of fuel, a group congregated in Oksana Chovik’s house, bathed in the blue glow of her restored computer. Oleksiy sat back with satisfaction.
“There Grandmamma. I hope you enjoy your new toy.”
“I hope that your piles hang like a bunch of grapes,” the woman retorted, shuffling to the device. Oleksiy retired to the laughter of assembled villagers.
“I think that one was Greek,” Tetyana whispered in his ear, before kissing him on the cheek. The old woman clicked and prodded before throwing her hands in the air.
“May you croak in the faith of the Poles!” deplored she, and ambled off. All knew the origins of the Ukrainian curse, which milked a little gasp.
Despite a lack of obvious connection to the collapsing Internet, the screen appeared to stream a series of random video clips. Perplexingly, their sources seemed the most surreal: an apparent internal security camera revealed the US President idly picking his nose in his subterranean bunker; a live Hubble feed reminded them that the infinite universe sped on with disinterest; but – most worryingly – a military headcam revealed a shocking threat:
Family raped before him, bloodied Maksym pointed to a map in the next village. The leaderless army had fragmented into hungry packs of feral militia. Maksym wasn’t even spared a bullet, perishing instead to the bayonet.
As they watched the computer in horror, the head-cammed killer exited the building to a trio of mixed uniforms, who consulted the map. A downward view revealed fingers pointed at their location. Coordinates were punched into a keyboard and a helicopter drone rose into the air before accelerating to the horizon.
“Extinguish the fire!” commanded Oleksiy, “If we stay indoors they will think the village is deserted. Tetyana? Tetyana, come back!”
Tetyana stood at the village’s edge, facing the direction of her hapless neighbours. Guilty smoke was now visible on the distant skyline. Without looking, she knew that the white elephant was standing motionless behind her.
Back in Grandmamma’s cottage, the view on the little computer revealed the drone’s camera feed. Clinging to one another, the villagers whimpered as the aspect cleared the rise of their sheltering mountain to reveal … nothing but loose stones and bracken.
Outside, the drone blindly overflew Tetyana and continued its elusive search in the valleys beyond. Denied rich pickings the militia headed towards the border, later to attack each other in a cannibalistic frenzy.
Tetyana turned, but the elephant had gone. Smiling sadly, she returned to the cottage.
“We must go and help our neighbours,” announced Grandmamma purposefully.