The trill of the tundra swans carries down from 20,000 feet, but you won’t need it where you are going. Their song is ethereal and otherworldly, starkly contrasting the fact that we are stuck here in the muck, in the basic struggles of our own making. If you are hearing any song still, it might be played over a tinny mobile phone speaker or in the car radio, as it carries you into hell. Perhaps you are in some unclean room that counts for a hospital, recovering from an injury, if anyone is caring for you at all, and they might have a radio around.
I have already cried my tears for you, and I have come to terms with the possibility that you are already gone. We were never that close. We barely ever saw each other in the past life, and all I remember from the times we did was your wild look. Like a suspicious lynx in need of convincing that I was not a threat who suddenly invaded your space, your movements were stiff and uncomfortable during our brief visits. In all likelihood, we probably chatted, joked about something, complained about others; or maybe you showed me something of which you were proud. Most of my other life feel like a dream, like I have made it up based on what others have told me about it. I don’t trust that I felt those emotions, that I traveled those paths, so I have trouble believing that we ever spoke for long. It seems unreasonable — perhaps melodramatic — that I would be shedding a tear for you about your whereabouts (the news that there are no news), especially in a public place as snow still stubbornly clings to the poplars, but here I am, feeling pity both for the waste of it but also for the shame of not having done more, of not having squeezed more meaning out of interactions that were never up to us anyway. I barely know your exact age.
Our first thought was Mariupol: that you would be sent there without any preparation, and perhaps you were. Writing about it now doesn’t make it feel any more visceral that all the footage we saw emerge. My survivor’s guilt will probably never disappear, not helped my subtle and not so subtle signals from those who remain. “Being there” seems like an epistemology that should be able to be challenged in this year 2022, but it’s clear that there still is no replacement for “going through it.” And what have I gone through? In writing to you, I make it, of course, about me. But all writing is rewriting, and whose claim to some kind of truth can be articulated in such a moment anyway?
The data that I can’t get anywhere else is what made you do it — have that big blow-up and enlist. To suggest that you were trying to prove something would provoke you even more, so I will say that you were searching for a way out of a corner into which you were backed. The irony of it is that — by hook or by crook — you would have been led into the cauldron anyway. They call it “Zhenbas” now, because there are only women left. I want to ask if this is true, but I would sound naïve when there is barely any tolerance for questions. Do they really grab men off the street? Surely, it is some sick joke. I imagine money had something to do with it. Perhaps the bitter injustice of it all was on your mind as you felt it was your way to earn enough to replace the car they took from you. Didn’t they say, “It is ours now” with the dead stare that rewrites reality itself, as if you are the problem for daring to raise the issue? Or maybe it was the cruel indifference of the world, but please don’t tell me about a sense of duty as you signed some piece of paper and said goodbye to your daughter. I want to believe that you remained agnostic to the ideological sways of the warlords who divided up the place around you. After all, how did you stumble home after they tied you and changed your face forever, after they pushed you out of the car and told you to walk along the mined field? It must have shown, you must have known. It’s this pivotal moment that I come back to again and again, because no one tells me anything, but still I imagine: did you make the switch to the side that dehumanized you, or were you already on their side anyway? Sure, you didn’t go to the marches or stuff money in the pockets of the soldiers wearing Saint George ribbons. From what I have seen, no person under 40 was seen in the main streets because they were probably trying to survive on the side streets. If you are anything like most people, you didn’t want to get involved, you were apolitical. But fate removed your options one after another. Your friends probably got killed and job prospects disappeared. They imprisoned your relatives, which is to say, threw them in concentration camps, like they did with so many others because crime fiefdoms don’t have the long-term structures like prisons and education facilities. But there is only one side for which to fight on your side of the “border,” and what I want to know is, is it loud there? Is it chronic? What comes first — the idea or the hunger? And as you slip into the routine where someone tells you what to do and what to think, to what corner of your mind do you shove the thought, the very real possibility, that it will be the face of one of your own whom you will recognize on the front line across from you in the senselessness that has eclipsed everything?