The story behind the story: Liliya and the Lost Relics of Bygone Futures

a gas mask hangs from a ceiling in Chernobyl

I am so pleased and proud to announce that one of my favorite short stories has found a home! “Liliya and the Lost Relics of Bygone Futures,” a new take on an old folk tale series, is live over on Soft Cartel. Go check it out!

All stories are journeys, but some are more of a hike than others. This was certainly one of them, with elements that morphed over time between its videogame influences, real world elements, and what it was I was trying to say.

The beginning: A first-line contest

The story’s first line, “As if escaping Russian mobsters and Ukrainian rebels wasn’t enough, Liliya now faced a choice: the nuclear hot zone before her, or mutant wolves behind,” grew out of a Writer’s Digest first-line contest based on the following picture:

a yellow and black radioactivity sign marks the Chernobyl Zone

Instantly recognizable to any child of the 80s, the sign sparked an idea that I couldn’t stop thinking about. I didn’t win or place in the contest, but an idea was born.

The next piece: Baba Yaga

I don’t recall what made me want to put Baba Yaga into the story. Probably it was just that once I started to turn the idea of a Chernobyl-set story over in my mind, she seemed only natural to include.

Yet, I wanted to be certain that I was remembering the Baba Yaga stories of my childhood accurately. I began to research her, and quickly found speculation that she had been, as one Russian soldier in my story puts it, a Sami shaman woman from northern Finland.

(In fairness, Baba Yaga could also have Siberian origins, as the Tungusic people have apparently similar constructions and traditions.)

The heroine’s journey

Baba Yaga fairy tales are all about tasks that the heroine must accomplish before she can get what she seeks. To come up with those, I took ekphrastic inspiration from a couple of additional photos: a Russian soldier playing the piano in the woods during the conflict in Chechnya, and an image from a videogame my son plays.

The piano in the photo taken in Chechnya was modified a bit. During a business trip to Tel Aviv (Israel), I had the opportunity to walk around Neve Tzedek, the oldest community in the city. In a square I found this piano:

an upright piano painted with skulls

So splicing the two together, for this story, seemed logical.

The teenager in the story was inspired by this image, from the videogame S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Of course, the “artifacts” he references in my story are not the Strugatsky brothers’ alien, “Roadside Picnic” castoffs. They are, however, hallmarks of Ukrainian culture. The current Russian push into the country recalls the Stalinist effort to take over the land, and it’s where the “lost relics of bygone futures” in the title comes from.

Additional research on Chernobyl

I quickly found out that my original plan, for Liliya to encounter mutant animals, wouldn’t work except as figments of her imagination, or perhaps magic. While animals born just after the disaster had in some cases severe mutations, the most severe didn’t last much beyond their generation. The mutations that seemed to have lingered are subtle.

More obvious, in fact, are the signs of human incursion into hallowed territory. There’s evidence that different tableaux that greet visitors are staged by tour companies, while “extreme tourists” leave behind many pieces of evidence that they’ve been there. In one scene:

Impulsively Liliya rubbed out the swear words. Just because others had seen a place of mystery to leave their mark upon, to conquer and own, didn’t mean it couldn’t and didn’t need to retain some dignity.

Somewhere during this stage of research I also read an article about the Doll’s Head Trail, not far from Atlanta, Georgia. It seemed to fit with the other surreal images I was working on, so I came up with this:

Illuminated doll’s heads hung on the walls of the car, uncomfortably similar to the glowing skulls that Vasilisa had sought from Baba Yaga in her legend. Their eyes rolled, so that they could watch Liliya as she passed them by.

(That’s only the beginning of the strange things she sees in that train car, too!)

Honoring the reality of the Zone

The final piece of the story came after I had already finished it. It had been rejected from an anthology I thought it would be perfect for, and as with every rejection, I took the opportunity to look at it again to see whether it could be improved.

What I saw was logic that didn’t quite work (even for magic!), including a major element I’d been worried about but hoped I was being too hard on myself around. It may not have been a factor in the rejection, but I decided I could do better.

Coincidentally, on Instagram I had seen a game developer post photos of his team’s goodwill mission to help the elderly who still live in the Zone. A little community live in what documentarian Holly Morris calls their “motherland” — and The Farm 51 team, which is producing a game called Chernobylite, have gone to deliver food and goods and company to the villagers.

The point is not just to use the area around Reactor 4 as a foundation for entertainment, but to honor what happened there, and how life goes on and even thrives.

I hope you enjoy reading “Liliya and the Lost Relics of Bygone Futures” just as much as I enjoyed writing it!

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