Chernobyl really happened, you know.

The people here, they don't talk about it. It's something that old crones sweep across cobbled streets and young mothers scrub out against their washboards. Never mind the explosion that shook those cobblestones, or the nine children that died and gave those mothers too shaky of hands to grip washboards. We don't talk about it.

The scientists do, though. They show up every few months covered in starched white coats and horn-rimmed glasses and medical words that sound like death. Hematopoiesis. Desquamation. Metranidazole. They're curious because things around Chernobyl are dead, but not decaying. Some kind of nuclear-poisoned fountain of youth, they say. Even the leaves that fell from trees twenty years ago are still there, each one a botanical tombstone. All the bugs are dying, too. Not spiders, though; the spiders thrive on the radiation. The scientists explain in terms I don't understand.

So I went to see for myself. I avoided the town; nothing was left there but rubble and full newspaper stands. I wanted to see the leaves. They crunched under my feet like dry bones, the forest floor littered with the skeletons of the trees. I crept further into the woods. That's when I stumbled across them: children playing in the mottled light by the creek. Nine of them, that I could see. Their mouths were scabbed shut and spiders crawled over their bodies like living black cloth. They weren't dead, but they certainly weren't alive.

We don't talk about Chernobyl.