Also in Prose:

Isaac Levitan. Trees and Bushes (fragment). 1885 (Wiki Art/Public Domain)
Vladimir Zhbankov. A Retreat



In our strange, unfamiliar times, it’s a shame to just take a vacation. You have to do something, to fit in with what’s going on. However, natural desires and, more importantly, opportunities tempt us to turn away from everything, to look inward and somehow, if not to talk to ourselves, at least to listen to an inner voice. For such endeavors, mankind has come up with a wonderful compromise: “retreat”. You are not going to rest but to work on yourself. So I decided to give it a try. Frankly speaking, I was tempted by one condition: during the whole event you have to be silent. Or, as the organizers put it, you “go into silence”. No Internet, no talking, spiritual practices from morning till night. The latter was a bit embarrassing, but – silence! Silence is worth paying for. And this is not a vacation, but, if I may say so, an educational undertaking. The event took place near the glorious town of Rzhyshchev. The organizers did not deceive. No communication, classes from early morning until night. Meditations, conversations with my own giblets and future remains, standing and lying on nails. I slept through the lying down, but when the standing began… This procedure was supposed to be an incredible relaxation of body, mind, soul and other subtle entities – and my leg cramped up so badly that I wore my limp as a spiritual diploma for a couple weeks afterward. The seminar, let’s call it that, wasn’t very long. Two nights, two and a half days. On the first night, traditionally, a wooden bowl with notes from predecessors was passed around. You had to take a random piece of paper and read a prediction or advice from the spiritualized ones. I got the advice to go to the woods. It was supposed to be magical. After the nails, my leg was so sore that I wanted to howl at the moon, turn into a werewolf, and chew on a sheep (the food at the event was exclusively vegetarian). After a nap, I woke up at five in the morning. Fine rain, warmth, no connection, no hope. Not even sleep. There was absolutely nothing to do. It was time to go to the forest. I didn’t go, I followed. The forest turned out to be quite interesting. No birch trees. Hornbeams, beeches, something else from the category of elite furniture. The organizers said that the forest was not easy, you need to remember the way. And they were not deceived. In the undergrowth, I broke out a stick of dried wood, or, as I preferred it, a “staff”. And I walked up the wet, slimy road. My goal was the Dnieper. My grandmother used to say that in the rain it is warmest to bathe. And there was no hot water in our chalet, or I just couldn’t find it. I thought I would go there, bathe and start spiritual practices with a relatively clean body and soul. The forest road smoothly turned into a path. It was pleasant, considering the elevation, it became much less slippery. A variety of biota: unknown plants, slugs, birds, something rustling, anxious bushes entertained and distracted me from the ruins of inner peace and despair. Soon I came to the top of a hill. A glade, yet not a glade. A cemetery. Small, like a classroom. Thirty graves. What it was like for them to drag coffins up the hill in winter and summer, I thought. I walked around and looked, and it’s true – both in winter and in summer. A lot of plaques have been preserved. An old cemetery. Abandoned. But then I understood it was not that old. Dates of death were mostly early 2000s. It was just overgrown. And I was not very new either, and also overgrown. I sat there, smoked, talked to the nicer graves, and that’s it, time to go. It was about a hundred and fifty meters to the Dnieper. The riverbank was right behind the top of the hill. It was obviously not my destiny to swim that day. A precipice, seventy meters or more. It was beautiful, but not a good idea to go down. It was raining, everything was slimy and glistened. What could I do? Just smoke, pensively looking at the flow of big water, and go back. The rain kept dripping, started raining harder, then almost stopped. Good thing I didn’t forget my raincoat. It smelled like rot but it was cozy. I lit a cigarette and turned around, hoping to find some log, stump, or bump to sit down on. And the ground began to go out from under my feet. Quite literally. The soggy bank began to collapse, rustling. Without thought, without even surprise, I reached out with my staff and hooked it into a thin tree. The ground no longer felt like the usual hard soil. My feet were pulled downward, quite powerfully and insistently. My wet hands slid on the rough stick, while its lumps painfully yet effectively were stopping my fall. I think the whole thing took no more than a breath in and a breath out. I hung there, not really wanting to climb up. The second I moved my hand away, I slid down. You better not to struggle, I said to myself, because the stick is held on the tree by a single limb, it won’t hold. I hung like that for a while. It was not a dream that I could wake up from, I had to do something, though it was very unpleasant that it happened like this. I began to pull myself up on the staff with small and smooth movements, to the best of my ability. Again it hurt, but I didn’t like the alternative of falling into a pile of dirt somewhere below. I couldn’t see the pile itself, my raincoat was blocking my view, but I didn’t want to turn my head. My footing was very fragile. I struggled for a long time, but I reached the tree. I climbed out and finally looked down. All in all, I’d made the right decision. It was quite high. Even if I’d have survived the fall, I had no chance. The water was close by. Most likely, I would have ended up in the river, my body floating to the nearest lock, dead, to the delight of many.


After my miraculous rescue, I had little strength left. Somehow I waddled to the cemetery and sat down on a grave. Told my troubles to the dead woman. The photo on the cross was faded, but it seemed to me that she looked at me with sympathy and supported my already shaken foundations. I moved on. I had to get back to the retreat and clean myself somehow. There was nothing to change into, I couldn’t scrub the dirt off, but at least I’d smear it so it wouldn’t be so noticeable. And of course, I couldn’t find my way back. I was in a field. I didn’t pass it on the way in. Dayling was coming in and it was getting hot. It was beautiful. A field of sunflowers on one side, hops on the other. And in the middle of it all, there was I, with the staff, covered in drying mud. And so I walked slowly. I was running out of cigarettes, and I didn’t know which way to go. Once I saw some dwellings, I’d figure it out there. So for quite a long time, I limped and watched the amazing beauty of clouds, views, and wet road under my feet. And so I came to the town of Rzhyshchev. The town of Rzhyshchev is famous not only for its history, but also for its military readiness. I had no documents with me and I looked like a forest monster who came out either to repent or to devour babies. Many vigilant citizens and employees of defense services questioned me: where did your beautiful self come from, what does it need, and wasn’t it time for it to retreat to a basement. My answer was simple, like a classic: “I am a hedgehog, I fell into the river…”. I got lost, I said, call my spiritual guru, he’ll explain. Some people did call, nobody said a bad word. The guru was busy. He was standing on nails with his disciples. So I walked around the city, scared and tired, it was incredibly hot, and I couldn’t take off my raincoat – it got stuck to me. I became a greenhouse man. Kind people brought me a glass of water. I was offered food and shelter. But my aim was to return. It was Sunday, the retreat would end tonight. I had to catch the shuttle home. Not that I had any really important things to do there; I just wanted to complete the quest as planned. Plans are not my strong suit, but still. And so I wandered around, lost, until I came upon a church. I went out at the beginning of six in the morning, and now it was afternoon. The service was ending. I sat down on a bench in the hall. It was wonderful. Our towns are not well equipped with benches, and if you find one, it is already occupied. The event was attended by a priest, some five parishioners, and an assistant priest. After they finished, they went out into the hall, and I told them about being a hedgehog. The priest ordered a shot of holy water to be served to everyone. I drank it and didn’t go up in smoke. The others did the same. After that, there was an opportunity for dialogue. I passed verification, so to speak. The priest turned out to be a guy my age, in rubber slippers, whose strictness came only from his position. He looked like a young Saruman, although not quite as gray yet. He called me in for tea. It turned out that he was running the whole monastery. The monastery didn’t have many people but it had lots of fruit and berry crops. We had tea, and in the meantime the priest called my guru. My guru had studied in India, where he visited many holy places and people. Now my guru spent his time putting ordinary folks on nails. And in between the nail sessions, he looked at missed calls from the good people of Rzhyshchev. And that’s when there was an incoming call: “Archimandrite Tikhon” with the corresponding avatar.

“Come and get this prodigal soul,” Tikhon commanded my guru.


So we drank tea for another hour and talked. We found a lot of things in common, interesting things. They sent a cab for me, and while I was in it, I realized. I’d really gone far away. We drove for an hour and a half through familiar fields with hops and sunflowers. When I got back, I told the story. I was still in a bit of high spirits, so iI called Tikhon. He recorded the message:

– Nothing but the truth.

*An excerpt from a book-in-progress about life in Kyiv and its environs in 2022.
Translated by Nina Kossman

About the Author:

Владимир Жбанков
photo by Lisa Zhbankova
Vladimir Zhbankov
Kyiv, Ukraine

Vladimir Zhbankov was born in Moscow in 1985 and has lived in Kyiv since 2015. He is the author of two collections of poems: “The Third Alphabet” and “Matchka” (Laurus, Kyiv, 2019, 2022). His texts have been published in  Russian literary magazines, such as Prologue, Znamya, SHO, Interpoetry, Polutona, and others. In early spring 2022, he refused to be evacuated. After the Russian invasion, he worked as a volunteer in the defense of Kyiv, and later, as a coordinator of the project specializing in search and assistance to Ukrainian prisoners of war (Poshuk.Polon).


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