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"The lights" and "The Cat"

Introduction by Natalia Arruda

"The lights" and "The Cat" by Kateryna Lenets


Empathy is paramount to creating a shared humanity and mitigating crisis. Please consider exercising empathy by making a donation that will help us to support Ukrainian students and refugees. One third of donations will go to Polyphony Lit, to promote literacy worldwide; one third to Teen Side, to provide publishing opportunities to Ukrainian writers; and one third to Reflect Empathy, to create scholarships for Ukrainian students.



In “The Lights” by Kateryna Lenets, there is a sense of silent anxiety and unease brought by the darkening of the city lights. Most of all, it is a longing for a time before the invasion of Ukraine. Longing for the peacefulness of home and the simple feeling of gazing at the lights and thinking only of minor worries.

The second piece, “The Cat,” elicits similar emotions. A pair of siblings sit on cold ground watching the sunset together with a cat. It is an ordinarily peaceful scene, yet anxiety still permeates their thoughts. The sound of a nightingale's song—which is often compared to the Ukrainian language—cuts through the anxiety, calling for peace. It is a fitting representation of Lenets’ work.

Though both pieces describe a quiet watchfulness, there is nothing quiet about the sensations they evoke. Loss, anxiety, and nostalgia are present in the darkening of the city lights and the fading daylight at sunset. The pieces are deeply human, and, like the song of a nightingale, are imbued with a message of freedom and hope for Ukraine to return to a more peaceful time.


Artwork: "Onlooker (the lights)" by Zhile Julia Zhou

"The lights"

“Look. Look and keep in mind” — outside the window the lights of a night city glitter like stars. Nine-story buildings stand tall and Lovecraftian, looking into private houses with their countless eyes. Between them is a barely visible bridge, where (a star falls) a car passes by from time to time. The sound of a motorcycle mixed with the song of crickets pours in through the slightly open window. There are no nightingales in the city.

But there are stars. They can be seen when you are just about to get home and stop at the door—just for a minute—before inserting the key in the lock and clicking twice while the dog barks obtrusively. Your loyal dog hears your footsteps and begins to follow you with its incomprehensible (and too loud) monologue up to the front door.

Sometimes, when closing the curtains before sleep, you would allow yourself to look at the lights and the cars. Those lights had no idea about how many times and with what emotions they were looked at every day before sleep, but each time you ordered yourself to remember this moment. Every moment.

“Look” — today was a good day, and tomorrow would be good too if you didn’t count the problems that you constantly put off solving.

“Look” — the onlooker never went to bed calm. He was always tortured by something, anxious, even if it wasn’t worth the trouble. Today the onlooker looks at the lights for too long, longer than usual.

“...and keep in mind” — in someplace safe he’ll be remembering those lights. They would return him to the times when tiny problems seemed big, when anxiety seemed distant and insignificant. He would lie and think of the mirror on the closet which he forgot to clean, and he would think of himself looking at those lights. One terrible morning he would wake up completely different, and the same lights would continue shining for him. He would even be able to step out on the balcony at night to have a cup of tea and a breath of evening air.

The new onlooker would be able to go outside as well, but without tea and not for long. He won’t be surrounded by the lights of the city, but the stars would shine for him from above. He would look at them for longer than usual and would think of how infinitesimal he is, along with his problems and those who rule an unjust world. The only things not minute were his thoughts and those lights — the only things eternal.

Outside, the crickets would sing all the same, and somewhere the nightingale would belt its tune (there are nightingales here now).

And then silence would fall.

The onlooker is at his place once again, closing the curtains. Lovecraftian nine-story buildings are not so many-eyed now. They are at a loss, blinking at the darkness which was once private houses.

The lights stopped shining.

Artwork: "Dichotomy (the cat)" by Zhile Julia Zhou

"The Cat"

And so they sat together with a cat, and listened to the twilight, and felt the sunset. She was sitting on the cold ground covered by choppy grass, and the cat curled up on her lap. She was thinking about everything and seething, and he purred under her touch, the smell of cleaning product not quite washed off her hands. Neither one closed their eyes. It was unclear if they were able to enjoy anything at all. Both were looking somewhere, in a direction only they knew of.

The ground hadn’t hummed for a few weeks now, and the air stopped humming sometime after, but they were listening closely regardless. Only birdsong reached their ears.

“Come out for a second,” her mom knocked on the window one night.

“But be quiet.” And she took her and her brother outside, near the pasture.

“Can you hear it?” she asked. “Nightingale.”

And so, they listened. And looked at the moon and listened again.

Oh to live like this – to sit, listen, and look. To feel something other than anger. To think of something other than memories swallowed by oblivion for some unknowable reason. But the reason is well-known – psychologists say it’s how our brain protects us. The sense of hearing is still getting used to the silence, the body doesn’t relax from the light breath of the wind.

Unidentifiable anxiety rises like a wave. She looks at the cat and his gray fur turning darker with the fall of twilight. People who are not very bright say that animals don’t know or understand anything.

“You get it…” she thinks.

He had come to her on his own. Jumped down from the fence, slowly approached and put a paw on her knee, as if asking permission.

One by one the stars came into view – it finally wasn’t cloudy. A familiar song sounded.

“You hear it? A nightingale…” she thought to the cat.

The cat closed his eyes.  

Translators: Julia Murashova

Content Editor : Natalia Arruda


Interview with Kateryna Lenets


Image Credits

Artwork: "Dichotomy (the cat)" and "Onlooker (the lights)" by Zhile Julia Zhou.

Zhile Zhou is a student of grade 11 at Beijing Keystone Academy. Passionate about painting, she has painted many artworks including an artbook of García Márquez‘s literary works. Several of her artworks were exhibited at school and featured in Teen Ink Magazine. Alongside her art pursuits, Zhile shows a zeal for creative writing. Two of her short stories, "The Melt" and "The Clock Tower have been published in Chinese literary magazines. She is also accomplished in the academic fields, and is very enthusiastic on physics, history, and mathematics.

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