I was two years old and living in the U.K. when the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant exploded, on April 26, 1986.
Naturally, I have no memory of the event, but my mother assures me that as the radioactive cloud swallowed Europe and rendered livestock unfit for consumption, she had joined in the panic buying of long-life milk. It loomed as a terrifying threat of nuclear retaliation throughout my life. Is it any surprise that 28 Days Later is my favorite movie?
Twenty-three years after the disaster at Reactor Four, my husband and I stepped off a minibus in the remains of Prypiat. Originally built to house the families of workers at the nearby power plant, the city in northern Ukraine now stands empty within the exclusion zone – or, my preferred translation, the zone of alienation. Technically, this was my honeymoon.
We were part of a small tour group with SoloEast (all in our mid-twenties; clearly the Chernobyl Generation). Yuri, our cheerful guide, invited us to feed the catfish in the reactor cooling ponds. They were the size of sharks.
As the prehistoric fish splashed after chunks of bread, Yuri assured us that their size had nothing to do with radiation, but was due to an absence of predators and the increased temperature of the cooling waters. As a four-foot fish leapt and swallowed a whole loaf, I was not so sure.
We had a few hours to explore the city. The most notable thing about Prypiat was the silence; despite what I had read about the blossoming ecology, no birds were singing. Branches pushed their careless way through shattered windows and creepers had taken over entire buildings. Grasses were waist-high wherever the earth was not concreted over.
After a quick dosimeter reading of radiation levels – for our reassurance, we were told – our guide ran ahead to the amusement park, as if aware that every breath in the city was an extra second off his life.
The amusement park was spectacular: The rusted yellow of the Ferris wheel stretched up into the flawless blue sky, one car creaking in the breeze. Flaking swing sets spun on their weathered pivots like desert wind chimes. I watched my husband climb fearlessly into a discarded bumper car, grinning for my camera as my hopes of motherhood slipped away. Our laughter sounded empty in the eerie dystopia.
The most haunting sight in Prypiat was the school. Rows of desks displayed open notebooks and colored chalks, evidence of the town’s rapid departure. A row of cubbies still contained tiny gym shoes. Hundreds of books of Soviet math and science spilled from overburdened shelves.
But time was against us and we hurried on through our final stops: an apartment building, a decaying leisure center, a theater. All frozen testaments to the Soviet era.
The journey back to civilization was silent and somber. We had stood witness at the end of time. My husband agreed – what a fabulous way to start our life together.