The light bulb flickered, humming to a dim glow in the sitting room of Symon Shevchenko’s farmhouse.
He had refused to leave. He had lived in that house his entire life, born there, his father born there; he was too old, he told the mayor, to pick up and come to town with everyone else. What would he do there? He is farmer. He does not know how to live in a small apartment, surrounded by concrete. If the darkness decided to envelope him, so be it.
He picked up a tattered copy of Gogol’s Dead Souls, put on his reading glasses, and settled into his favorite chair to read. And wait.
For three weeks, the darkness had been encroaching upon the village. No one noticed at first as it swallowed the deeper forest, taking with it the elk, the deer, the wild boar, the hare. Then it obliterated the stream that fed their wells, along with the perch and the sturgeon. When the farms on the furthest outskirts disappeared, along with their livestock, their families, then the people started to notice, and talk.
“Have you been out to the Abramov farm?” A middle-aged woman clutched her handbag and held her jacket closed at the collar. “There is nothing there. Just dark fog.” She looked over her shoulder as if the darkness was listening.
“Why would I go out there? Oksana, leave the outskirts to the soldiers. There is nothing we can do.” Alyona shook her head and made the sign of the cross.
A truck rumbled by loaded with cables, towing floodlights and a generator. The driver acknowledged the women as he sped past, the engine grinding into high gear.
“More lights,” Alyona commented as she watched the work truck lurch toward the farm lands. “With God’s blessings, may it work.”
The electrician had volunteered for this. He knew how to lay cable, to make sure the circuits could distribute the load without tripping a breaker. Soldiers had been deployed to implement the emergency plan, but lighting up the entire border was a monumental effort that taxed the military’s resources. Every able-bodied person was asked to help, implored to help, and electricians were hailed as heroes for their knowledge.
They arrived at Symon Shevchenko’s farm in the middle of the afternoon; they had ample time to place the generators and lay cable before the sun would relinquish its place and allow the darkness to seep in from the north. Maxim jumped off the truck and scanned the fields, the farmer’s young crops, the neighbor’s house in the distance, and the black, impenetrable fog that hovered behind a grove of trees, waiting for its opportunity to expand. To the west he could see the generators and floodlights his team had placed yesterday. The empty nothingness silently churning outside of their reach dwarfed the lights and stretched the limits of his ability to hope.
He shook off his gloomy thoughts and got to work. One more farm to save, or at least stave off the disappearing long enough for someone to figure it out. Andriy was already staking out where the equipment would go. Maxim hustled to give him a hand.
“What are you thinking—fifty meters from the darkness?” Maxim eyeballed the distance to the dark edge of the opaque black fog.
Andriy looked over his shoulder, toward the floodlights placed yesterday. “It seemed to work over there,” he glanced up at Maxim as he nodded toward the last farm. “I can still see the Melnyk farm.” He dug into the soil, and placed a bright orange marker.
Symon looked up from his book and watched the crews setting up the enormous lights. He was interrupted by a knock at the door.
“Sir, we’re setting up the generator a little ways off the back of your house,” the young soldier was in full combat gear, covered in a fine layer of Symon’s topsoil.
“You’ll need to listen for it throughout the night. If it stops running, if you have any concerns, light a flare—” he held one up to make the point, then offered Symon a bag of six. “Are you sure you wouldn’t like to come to town? It’s safer there.”
Symon smiled at the soldier, that smile old people make when they don’t want to hear good advice from a young person. How old is he, 19, maybe 20? Not much older than my grandson. “Thank you, I’ll be fine here.” He patted the young man on the forearm and accepted the bag of flares.
“Okay, well, we have guards watching all night. If you have any concerns, just light a flare and we’ll come.”
Symon nodded and shut the door. The sun was beginning its final descent, perfectly framed in the lower half of one casement window. Symon considered it, how beautiful the sunset is, then headed to the kitchen to make dinner. The generator roared to life. The lights overwhelmed the dying day and glared in at him.
The generator was the only sound now. With the darkness came silence, because nothing lived in that black fog. At least, nothing living had ever come out of it, and the darkness had never retreated to reveal what it might leave behind. Symon had heard scientists were monitoring it, and there were reports of kids who dared each other to touch it, enter it. I think that’s how Krystiyan’s grandkid disappeared. He put a frozen dinner in the microwave.
The last red-orange hues of the day rested on the horizon as deep purples streaked the sky from the east, but Symon’s house was lit from the outside by the harsh manufactured glow.
He took a few bites of dinner but he wasn’t really hungry. He put down his fork, and looked out the kitchen window: what’s in there? What does it feel like, that black fog? He understood the curiosity of the children, at the same time he knew that the question could be answered definitively only once. The generator hummed in the background.
He got up from the table, leaving his plate where it sat, and walked to the back door. The old brass doorknob felt cold in his hand. He opened it, surprised at how loud the squeak from the hinges sounded when there were no crickets, no wolves, no owls singing their evening ballads.
Symon stepped outside into the cool air. Darkness on the farm was not unusual, but this darkness obliterated even the outlines of trees. There was nothing beyond the black fog, nothing above it, certainly nothing hinted at its base. It was as if some force had built a massive wall, a curtain, to hide what had always been there, or to take it for itself. And each day it stole a little bit more.
He walked across the yard, past his barn, the engine of the generator louder with each step. But it was not a welcome respite from the silence. On the contrary, it seemed to amplify it. There was no other noise. He thrust his hands in his pockets as he walked, checking on his cows and goats who calmly chewed their roughage, oblivious to the danger. For a brief moment, life felt normal.
He left the animals’ pens and strode the few feet to the edge of the manmade illumination. Symon was dwarfed by the poles holding the 400-watt lamps, and the lamps were dwarfed by the roiling black wall of fog they held back. He looked up; the fog billowed out and disappeared as it hit the light. He looked left and right; as far as he could see, the darkness tested the light’s edge, and disappeared as it hit the artificial glow.
Symon walked as closely as he could, peering into it, trying to see something beyond the billowing surface. Like the rebel pre-teens scolded by the soldiers, he reached his hand toward the darkness, slowly. He twisted his hand as he watched it fade from sight, first his fingers, then the back of his thumb, then his wrist. It felt like nothing, vaguely cold, but neither comforting nor painful. He pulled his hand back, and studied it, stretching his fingers, making a fist. Hm, my joints seem to ache less, and he looked at his other hand, performing the same maneuvers. His fingers stiff with the dull pains of age and use reminded him of the years of hard labor coaxing food from the soil. I wonder. . . he extended his second hand into the black fog bank, and watched it disappear like the first. He withdrew it, and flexed his fingers. No pain.
“Huh,” he inspected his hands as if they belonged to some other creature, then looked up at the darkness. He stood there for a moment, contemplating the pros and cons of testing the fog further. If he entered, could he could come back out? Would the stiffness of age, the old injuries of youth, be gone?
Symon walked within the protection of the light along the edge of the black fog and ran his fingers through it, the way a dog sticks its nose out of the truck’s window, enjoying the breeze. He walked a kilometer or more, to the edge of the Malnyk farm, when he noticed a spot of brightness in the haze.
The darkness had obscured part of Malnyk’s fields, specifically where he grew sunflowers. The plants were tiny shoots planted just recently, no more than squat stems with two embryonic cotyledon leaves. Some of the plants had been trampled by the earnest work crews placing lights. Those that survived under the lights were spindly, likes plants grown in a lit greenhouse. But at the foot of the darkness, where nothing was alive, not even grasses, Symon Shevchenko could see a faint green luminescence.
“What is this?” he muttered under his breath as he knelt down to inspect the shock of color. Along the dense, misty edge of the darkness, small seedlings radiated a faint green glow, like phosphorescent mushrooms or bugs. The seedlings had each carved a small clearing in the fog, like little lanterns of their own making, lighting the radius of their leaves. Symon looked along the length of the planted row. He could see little circles of green light reaching into the depths of the darkness, each less intense than the one in front of it, little beacons marching against the gloom.
Symon reached down and gently touched the leaves of the seedling just inside the edge of the fog. It felt strong and vibrant. The embryonic leaves were thick, dark green, with tiny white hairs like an old man’s unshaven face, or the crown of a newborn babe. But nothing else grew. No animals or insects dared to nibble on the fresh shoots that fought against the darkness. No weeds crowded them. Symon stood and pondered his discovery—why hasn’t someone noticed this?
He rose and dusted the dirt from his hands and walked back home. His footsteps on the soil kept a beat for the generators’ constant hum. Symon glanced across his land that still lay untouched by the darkness.
The work crew was out with the morning sun measuring new encroachments made by the darkness overnight. Symon completed his morning chores, fed his animals, checked his fields. He decided to go check on Malnyk’s sunflowers again.
The sky to the south was bright blue. The sounds of tractors, chickens, sheep and goats replaced the hum of generators. To the north, the darkness was as impenetrable as the day before. Symon walked along its edge, greeting the soldiers and volunteers who were out checking and double-checking the cables, generators and lamps. As he approached Malnyk’s farm, he slowed and surveyed the field.
Sunflowers are hardy plants, and in spite of the extra foot traffic, the crop seemed to have recovered. He stopped at one row, and ran his eyes along its length, from where it began perpendicular to the dirt road, to where it disappeared into the darkness. He turned and followed it, right up to the churning blackness. He scanned the wall of billowing black fog; it didn’t look any different now than it did during the night. He turned and squinted at the sun, grateful to have its protection.
Just like the night before, he bent down and looked at the seedlings. It was much more obvious, when the only darkness was the unnatural evil descending from the north, that the tiny sunflower seedling had carved a small space free from the taint. It was hard to verify, but it seemed to Symon that the sunflower seedlings continued to break the darkness as the row disappeared into the fog.
A soldier came by with a wheelbarrow full of electrical gear. “Do you need some help, old-timer?”
“No, no, just checking my neighbor’s crops,” Symon shook his head and smiled at the young man. Then he headed home. He had an idea, and needed help.
He waved to the crew checking his generator as he strode past. He grabbed the keys for his old truck and headed to town. He needed to tell his friends and the other farmers what he found. He pulled up to a diner and parked next to Mykola’s truck.
A number of old farmers, men and women, sat at a table discussing the developments of the night. They waved Symon over when he entered. He signaled the waitress for a cup of coffee, and told them what he had seen.
“You’re saying the sunflower seedlings beat back the darkness?” Zlata knit her brow. She had seen the black fog destroy half her farm, and take her dog too. “Do you think anything else is alive in there?”
“All I could see were the seedlings,” Symon replied. “There were not even weeds growing with them, no bugs on the leaves.”
“And it felt like . . .nothing?” Dmytro leaned in, and pushed back the brim of his cap.
The table of farmers was joined by others, people who formed the foundation of the town, grandmothers and grandfathers, great aunts and great uncles. They stayed well past noon, the meals changed from breakfast to lunch, a few happily claiming they had earned their early beers after staying up with the generators the night before.
“So it’s settled,” Symon smiled at his table of friends, and every face smiled back, nodding in agreement.
Late afternoon, the young soldier knocked on Symon’s door. “Hello, sir. I just wanted to make sure you have those flares I gave you yesterday.” Symon smiled and nodded. “Are you sure we can’t take you to town?”
“No, no, I will be alright. This is my home! I am not afraid of the darkness.”
The young soldier nodded deferentially and walked back to his truck.
The sunset was particularly beautiful, framed in the sitting room window, every shade of crimson below, the radiant deep blue of evening settling in from above. The generators hummed to life. Symon put down his book, took off his reading glasses, and headed for the door.
At the barn, he picked up a large burlap sack full of sunflower seeds and hooked the strap over his shoulder. He walked to the back of his property, where the dark fog toiled and curled, raging against the wall of light. He was joined by another farmer, and then another, until everyone who was at the diner, plus others who had heard the story, stood at the edge of the light, at the edge of the darkness, each with their own sacks of seeds hung from their shoulders.
They spread out, laughing and talking as they each took up a spot along the edge of the fog. “For our town,” shouted one man.
“For our children,” shouted another.
“For our children’s children,” echoed across the fields.
They turned and smiled at each other, grabbing handfuls of seed. “Glory be forever!” They walked into the fog, sowing sunflower seeds as far as their arms could fling them.
The grim soldiers continued their work fighting off the darkness. The young man had knocked at Symon Shevchenko’s door, but did not receive an answer. He tipped his head, his helmet hiding his face, and returned to the generator.
Maxim was preparing to lay cable at another farm when he realized he was too far away. “Andriy, did you check distance? We’re too far.”
The light standards placed yesterday were more than fifty meters from the black fog. Maxim eyed the churning blackness, and looked down the long line of lights placed over the previous weeks. All of them were too far. Confusion on his face, he decided to walk off the distance, taking meter-long strides toward the darkness.
He confirmed the fifty-meter mark was no longer near the edge. In its place was a field of tiny sunflower shoots, strong and healthy, no weeds, no insects. He walked a few meters into the seedlings up to the edge of the darkness, and saw that small patches of green light continued into the diminishing black fog.
Within a month, the darkness had been pushed back and reduced, replaced by an endless sea of sunflower stalks, their green flowerheads watching the sun. By the end of summer, they towered above the town folks’ heads, filling in the space beneath the trees with their bright yellow faces, and the darkness surrendered its last hold.