Lisa Biletska

The Lernean Hydra (SECOND LABOR)

From The Myths and Legends of Ancient Greece:

“After the first labor, Eurystheus sent Heracles to kill the Lernean hydra. She had the body of a snake and nine dragon heads. Like the Nemean lion, she was the child of Typhon and Echidna. The hydra lived in a swamp near Lake Lerna, and, slithering out from her lair, ate the people’s cattle and left the surroundings denuded. A fight with the nine-headed hydra was dangerous, because one of her heads was immortal.”

October 14th, 2019

It takes me longer than usual to get to the summer house. A military parade and a small protest are blocking some of the main streets. It’s “Defenders’ Day.” The protestors, meanwhile, think we’re capitulating to Russia. My grandfather thinks it’s the last warm week of autumn, and time to harvest the grapes.

The grapes are Alexandrouli, and my grandfather is Alexander. He’s using a macgyvered power drill to mash them into juice in a rubber bucket.

“Ah, today it’s ‘Pokrova’ (trans. ‘Protections’/‘Coverings’)” says my grandfather.

“What’s ‘Pokrova’?”

“It tells you if it’ll be a cold winter. If it’s cold today, then you know, once winter comes, the ground will be protected by snow.“

It’s an inordinately hot October day. We’re in our t-shirts.

[Note: Pokrova, or "Protection of Our Most Holy Lady Theotokos and Ever-Virgin Mary”: In the 10th century, Mary appears in a church in Constantinople and spreads a giant cloak over everyone. Which is to say (according to Nestor who lived in a cave), when a large Rus’ army went to attack Constantinople, the people prayed, and the holy lady annihilated them.]

“Ah, wait,” says my grandfather. “It’s the Day of the Ukrainian Cossacks!”

A breeze blows. A reed falls out of the mason bees’ bundle that’s tucked under the patio roof.

“You know, when the Cossacks had to swim up to an enemy camp undetected, they’d use reeds like these to breathe underwater. When winter comes and the lake’s iced over, I’ll go to Vyrlytsia for more.”

Later, after I leave:

“But the mason bees could just use a hiding-place in the wall… or the spiral of a dead snail under a heap of stones,” says Jean-Henri Fabre.

“Yes, nobody fusses with them like I do,” my grandfather says. “But when the first blooms open — dogberry, apricot, cherry, peach — it’s only for the mason bees.”

“Hail to you, O my dear Osmiae, who yearly…bring me the first tidings of the awakening of the insect world!” says Jean-Henri Fabre.

“Exactly,” says my grandfather.


What is Vyrlytsia?

“Vyrlytsia is the same as a turbine. A blade motor that converts the energy of water, steam, and gas into a rotating shaft’s mechanical energy.”
“Vyrlytsia is from ‘vyr’ — a deep well, a fountainhead, in archaic Ukrainian.”
“Vyrlytsia is a lake in the central part of the Darnitsky district of Kiev; the 2nd largest lake in the Darnitsky district. Area: 0.98 km². General mineralization type: freshwater. Origin: N/A. Hydrological regime: undrained.


By 1958, he had read Krusenstern, de Laperouse, Litke, “and all the French adventurers” and was at the HydroMeteorology Institute in Odessa.

Inscribed in a copy of The Myths and Legends of Ancient Greece, gifted to him by a fellow student:

Remember, my friend, for a moment,
Your youth in HydroMet,
And two students of oceanology.

There were twenty-five of them, in fact. They walked into the sea, drank saltwater, shouted oaths of oneness, and not one of them laughed.

By 1959, the Oceanology department was closed, and the mariners were directed to study Aerology (airflows over airspaces) and Agroaerology (winds over cornfields). Meanwhile, in the Kyiv Polytechnic Institute’s Film Engineering department, Sound Engineering students like my grandmother Irina were being converted into students of Hydroacoustics.

Тhis is where water and sound collide. Soon, my grandparents would both be making Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) Hydro Devices at an institute colloquially known as FISH.

So that far our fleet could see,
And hold the borders of the sea.
And so that from the sea so deep
Not one enemy could creep
Our institute was made.
    (Hydrodevice engineer A. K. Kizlinsky)


Comments on Vyrlytsia:

Yes, there’s fish there, аnd quite a lot, too. Muskrat also found. I’ve caught pike, carp, rudd, roach, perch, bleak, though I didn’t eat the fish, I let them go, you never know… If you don’t look at the factory plants, it’s very beautiful in the reeds. They say there are decent depths there. I like it. The water, by the way, is clean, clear. But the silt smells like some kind of “chemistry”.

AlexLong says:
Yeah, the “Energy” plant carries French scents.

SASKOK says:

Grigoriy (guest) says:
The plant has nothing to do with it, doesn’t throw dirt in there that’s for sure I work there, and it stinks there because of the Bortnitska Sewage Plant, and the station flushes the shit down the channel, through the sluices, and into the Dnipro, anyway the lake is clean lots of fish I eat it ever year it’s tasty if the factory flushed I wouldn’t eat it that’s logical the lake is clean.

It is I (guest) says:
cool lake and it’s big and it’s said the cleanest in kiev people swimming then everything’s dirty then stop coming up on it I’ve crossed this lake on land and on water everything


Heracles set out on his journey to Lerna with his nephew Ioalus. When they got to the swamp, Heracles left Ioalus with the chariot in a nearby grove, and went to find the hydra. He found her in a cave surrounded by a swamp. He heated his arrows until they were red-hot, and started to fire them at the hydra, one after another. The hydra was enraged at Heracles’ arrows. She slithered out from the darkness of the cave, wriggling her body covered in sparkling scales, and rose fiercely on her giant tail.


Vyrlytsia never meant to be so deep you could hide bodies in it.

With building opportunities in the north exhausted, the General Plan directed the building vector to the south. When the vector crossed places like Vyrlytsia, dredged sand built apartment complexes. Dredging deepens the lake, but the buildings’ foundations seal its groundwater channels. Vyrlytsia spills outwards, creeping into new territory.

If you’re a botanist, like my friend Aleksey, you might find tiny fall ephemera in some of the shallows—toad rushes and brown flatsedge. But I’m not, and all I see are reeds, rippling waves of reeds, which have colonized the new floodwater plains. Sea buckthorn makes a barbed wire fence along the perimeter.

In the original version of the city hymn, Kyiv’s ubiquitous 1960’s-era canna lilies “peer” into the poet’s eyes, canna lilies are vessels for his heart. The time of canna lilies is long over, however. A 2017 city-development presentation gives a new English translation of the hymn.

The City Council sings:

…I can’t help loving you, my Kyiv!
Reed look into my heart,
I will pour my heart into them,
May they tell to my beloved, how faithfully I love.

The City Council next loves Kyiv while it sleeps:

I will live and dream on the wings of hopes...
I can’t help loving you, my Kyiv!
Tired city sleeps with quiet and sweet sleep.
The city lights blossom above the Dnipro like a necklace,
Velvet of the evenings, like the surf of happiness...
I can’t help loving you, my Kyiv!

Like a necklace, a battery of warehouses, pipes billowing, hug the far side of the lake:

- the Bortnitska sewage treatment plant (which is “not only physically, but morally tired”)
- the Energy trash-burning plant (“oh how it hummed, and stank of burning fumes that night… that’s when it works, to poison sleeping people”)
- the Kyiv hardware factory (no-one was harmed, Eugenia bought some great insoles for arch support)
- and the Micron integrated circuit manufacturer—a subdivision of the Ukrainian strategic military-industrial enterprise Radiometer.


She wanted to attack the HERO, but he stepped on her body and crushed her to the ground. She tried to wind her tail around the HERO’s legs to tackle him. The HERO stood immovable, and, wielding a heavy club, smashed the hydra’s heads, one after the other. Like a whirlwind, the club whistled through the air—the hydra’s heads were flying off, but she was still alive.

Then Heracles noticed that in the place of each fallen head, two more were growing. Help for the hydra arrived—from the swamp came a giant crab, and sunk his pincers into Heracles’ leg. Heracles called for help. Ioalus arrived and destroyed the crab. Then Ioalus set a nearby grove on fire. He took burning tree trunks and seared her necks from which Heracles was beating down her heads. No new heads grew from the cauterized stumps. The hydra grew weaker and weaker, and could no longer keep up with the HERO. Then, the immortal head, too, fell down. The hydra fell, dying, defeated, to the ground.


Those who gave names to Soviet war machines must have hoped to endow them with incendiary, incantational potential:


Hydrodevices hoped to harness the arcane powers of the heavens and the waters:

Sea Breeze

Churning behemoths—Taganrog’s and Volgograd’s Breaking Waves and Mermen—joined the Fish and Centaurs of Kyiv and St. Petersburg in heavy constellations. Titanium Centaurs armed with Lightning Rays rose from Lagoons; brass Neptunes wielding Ruby Impulses of Progress turned Sea Breezes to Blizzards. What Hydrodevices could find, Micron devices could calculate, Arsenal devices could target, and something probably called Basilisk or Viper could annihilate.

When inventions moved to production, they acquired new names that looked like this:


The Institute of Hydrodevices had other names too:

National Research Institute-753
post office box 153
experimental factory Dnipro
teletype code name Amber


The CHAMPION Heracles buried her immortal head deep under ground, and moved a giant rock over it, to stop her from reemerging. Then the GREAT HERO slashed the body of the hydra, and impregnated his arrows with her poison. From then on, the wounds from Heracles’ arrows were incurable. With great pomp Heracles returned to Tiryns. But there, a new assignment from Eurystheus was already waiting for him.”


The oil that oiled these machines was cheap oil, and when it ran out, thousands of workers (in white lab coats or flaming bellies, no matter) glanced at each other sideways.

From the smoky heavens above issued this word: ‘Conversion’. Conversion is “go on, make something for the civilians”. It’s corporate moonlighting. It’s when you go on a business trip, and your boss says “don’t you come back without an idea. Bring us something so we can do a ‘conversion’.”

The Arsenal factory, an upstanding maker of anti-aircraft missile systems, made children’s sleds and my grandmother’s little kitchen radio.

The Radical factory remembered chlorine’s use as a pesticide.

The Shostka factory (Ukraine’s oldest defense industry enterprise) converted gunpowder into things you didn’t know could be made from gunpowder: fiberglass, Flame Retardant 2, polyethylene foam, miconites, micostrips, glass strips, glass micostrips, nitrocellulose paint, wood and metal enamels, furniture varnish, airplane varnish, electronics varnish, household chemicals, cleaning products, solvents, adhesives, fillers, sealants, ether, anesthesia with a three-year shelf life, and three million linear meters of positive camera film.

My grandfather made this conversion: from ‘Hydropribor’ (Hydrodevices) to ‘Arbor’.


I twirl the small steel black cylinder in my hands. I still don’t see how he turned hydrodevices into this. How do you turn a sonar into a microscope?

“No, the conversion happened in here.” My grandfather taps on his temple.

Here is how to make this conversion:

During World War II, the USSR cops some very nice German optics, and gives them to the Arsenal factory. Later, Arsenal uses them to make mass-market “Kiev” photo cameras (nifty conversion), among other things. These optics, you think, could also make for nice microscope lenses. And, that’s right, Arsenal also doubles as a metal foundry. But this is not enough, as the civilian population has no use for microscopes, only...

Arbor, a short introduction:

During the first half of the menstrual cycle, the level of estrogen hormones in the saliva gradually rises, reaching maximum concentration on the day preceding ovulation (the release of the egg), and then suddenly decreases. The difference in the level of estrogen hormones in the body corresponds to a difference in the character of a saliva sample’s crystallization when dried; the more estrogen there is in a woman’s body, the greater the crystallization of the saliva (see image). The saliva crystals, observed under a microscope during the 5–7 days before the emergence of the egg and 1–2 days after its emergence, are reminiscent of the hoarfrost pattern on a frozen window, or (directly before the emergence of the egg) the leaves of a fern. Sexual intercourse during this time can lead to a pregnancy. During other days, the picture resembles irregularly shaped seeds, or grains of sand.

Using the Arbor mini-microscope to analyze the crystalline structure of your dried-saliva sample is completely safe and available to every woman within the comfort of her own home. It can be used to prevent unwanted pregnancy, get pregnant, increase the likelihood of having a boy or a girl baby, monitor your hormones before, during, and after pregnancy.

Also: using the Arbor mini-microscope to analyze the crystalline structure of a dog’s dried-saliva sample to determine the optimal mating day is completely safe and available to every dog owner.


Arbors found favor with soldiers’ wives. My grandfather would meet them at the corners of their voengorodki, the permanent military bases and communities located throughout Kyiv, to pass on the devices. Soldier wives often wait for their men—at war or in training—to come back on leave. When they do, time is always running out. With the Arbors, the wives hacked their reproductive cycles, spitting for their futures like biopunk oracles, timing leaves with hormones, looking out for the leaves of a fern. I’ve heard it said that babies borne of this labor would come out of their mothers fully armored, as Athena did, with hard, chitin carapaces protecting the elbows, the knees, and the ankles.


Heracles would later use the hydra’s venom to kill the bronze-beaked Stymphalian Birds, Geryon-the-Giant (who, in dying “bent his neck over to one side, like a poppy that spoils its delicate shapes, shedding its petals all at once”), and the centaur Nessus. The venom washed from Heracles’ arrows and stank up the entire river Anigrus.

The hydra’s venom was the end of Heracles, too. His wife was jealous, there was a misunderstanding, she accidentally dressed him in a robe soaked with the centaur Nessus’ poisoned blood.


When I visit the Hydrodevices website in early October, it’s clearly vulnerable and contaminated. “Antisubmarine Aviation” and “Hydroacoustical Stations” still show giant metal cylinders inside discs, inside cones, inside laboratories, attended by men and women in white coats. But under “Acoustic Monitoring of Pipelines,” I find:

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When I visit the Hydrodevices website again in November, it no longer exists.


By the Vyrlytsia metro station, there’s a row of small stores, each in its own ten-square-meter corrugated metal box container. Between them and forming a tail towards the end are sellers without a store—slapdash tabletop dealers in honey, wire, socks, fish.

I enter one of the two pet shop boxes found on this strip.

The owner tells me:

They catch it in there (slight nod of the head towards the lake), and then they come here to sell it, and then go back there to drink away what they’ve made. Once, I bought two carp here. I ask him, where’d you get it? He’s all, ah, I caught it over at Vydubichi. I brought it home, my wife cooked it. It started stinking of gasoline! I walked around for days with the taste of gasoline in my mouth. Then I come up to him and I say, what’s this you’ve been telling me then. I know you caught that fish here! The owner thinks for a moment and adds: Even the water fountains around here are poisonous. I had some Malawi cichlids in that tank (incredulous, I realize there’s an entire wall of aquariums in the small space behind me). You know, small, yellow and blue little fish, carnivorous! Those cichlids, you can beat them with a hammer, they’ll survive. But the water from the well pump down the road killed them all.

The reeds on the bank form tunnels that are taller than I am, and as I walk, as if in a mist, I hear groups of strangers I can’t see—toasting, playing little radios, squealing. It’s another hot October day.

I empty my water bottle to collect a sample from Vyrlytsia. I make sure to gather up some brown silt, and green mush, and white foam, and grey sand. Momentarily forgetting my purpose, I take a swig from my bottle, and, remembering the Malawi cichlids, spit it out. For the rest of my walk, I feel like my throat is prickling unnaturally.

When I get home, I transfer the Vyrlytsia water to a glass jar and wait for it to settle. Leveling my gaze, I see what I know are Daphnia: the round, see-through shell, giant compound eyes, hairy antennae outstretched above its head like a zombie. Tens, hundreds maybe, are whizzing and darting through the water. On the surface, tiny black dots that look like fleas are jumping in jerks. Nematodes somersault past.

I take out my Arbor. The slides are the size of a fingernail. There’s a barely perceptible dip in the plate. I realize the water organisms will need to be observed in one single droplet of water at most. I acquire pipettes. How do you observe a whizzing Daphnia or a jumping flea in a water droplet? I kill a few with Mr. Muscle glass cleaner. Now they’re immobile, but their little antennae have folded close to their bodies and they’ve curled up into an indiscernible blob. I give up on killing them and decide that, if live water fleas settle inside the crevices of the Arbor, I’ll call it a successful colonization and call it a day.

The black dots turn out to be Cyclops—one-eyed, ten-legged crustaceans with a shape that reminds me of an IUD. It swims with characteristic jerky movements. Cyclops has the capacity to survive unsuitable conditions by forming a cloak of slime. I have to keep a loose lid on the jar to stop them from escaping. Tiny flies have also appeared, likely born from eggs in the water, and they rise in a loose swarm when I lift the lid.

Annoyingly, something fleshy—something like a piece of cheek—is stuck inside my pipette. It won’t dislodge, and, after I attack it with some tweezers, I own that, if it ever was alive, it is now, surely, dead. Nonetheless, I place it in its water droplet, slide the slide into the Arbor’s cavity, and light my table lamp underneath to take a look. Nothing at first and then… a long, spindly, green-tinged tentacle. It waves at me. Another tentacle intersects it. The tentacles—five or six of them—attach to a thick trunk, ending with a stump, which seems to be suctioned to the plate. I’m reminded of the wacky inflatable tube guy at the gas station. Astonishingly, a smaller replica of this entire creature is emerging from one side of its trunk. It takes my breath away.

When I look up again, it’s dark outside, and I’ve filled my entire memory card with footage of the immortal Hydra (see video).

I lean back in my chair, and think about how hard it is to look through a peephole. At a droplet. How the focus latch kept catching. How greedily I squinted and bent my neck at my catch. How my heartbeat quickened and skipped a beat at the Cyclops. The long, gripping awe in which the Hydra held me. It’s a desire to see that starts to smother.

These violent delights, whispers the Hydra.

It’s been a month and the Vyrlytsia jar is still on my counter. I could take it back, but… if I flush these Cyclopses and Hydras and Daphnias down my toilet, won’t they just flow down to the Bortnitska sewage plant? Does not everything eventually come back to Vyrlytsia?

A version of this text first appeared in Noga magazine, in 2020.
Video by Lisa Biletska

Issue 11 — February 2021
Инга Линдоренко Тихая охота   Інга Ліндарэнка Silent Hunting   Inha Lindarenka Silent Hunting   Ліза Білецька Вирлиця   Лиза Билецкая Вырлица   Lisa Biletska Vyrlytsia   Anastasia Keineahnung A place in a head that reminds of something important   Анастасия Кайнеанунг Место в голове напоминающее о важном  
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