Soviet-era buildings destroyed by Russian bombs and the war dead whisper in my ears, as I walk alone. Snow falls on the city, enclosing us, as if to conceal the sorrow, brutality and cruelty of the world.
As spring approaches, the snow and ice melt. The river timidly starts running through the city again. It was a place I called home.
From a hilltop, the city looked peaceful and harmonious under the sky. It was a fortress made of sand: a beautiful fragile project God created on a whim and suddenly abandoned.
“What are you thinking about?” Lisa asked.
“It’s still my home,” I said and stepped away from her. She followed me while saying, “If you want to cry, just cry.” I couldn’t tell if she was angry with me. “I’m sorry, Lisa.”
I am looking at my parents in the kitchen. In the hallway it’s dark. They argue. I return to my room.
My sister rubs her eyes in bed, “Are they fighting again?”
I give her a hug, “Don’t you worry, Milana. Go back to sleep. I can read you a book if you want.“
“No, I’m okay,” she says and rolls over.
Children are aware of unspoken truths about this world and its inhabitants without anyone ever explaining to them that people live separate lives. Since the tensions began, our lives have been turned upside down. In the store adults glare at us. They look at me and my sister. I can’t read emotions in their eyes. Disgust? Fear? I tell my sister, “Let’s go,” and lead her out the door. I hope she doesn’t see what I see.
Lisa and I were in a café in Brussels. It started raining soon after we left home for a walk. There was a family speaking in Russian across the room. I said, “There are a lot of people to practice Russian with in Brussels.” Lisa was an exchange student from Boston studying Russian literature. She looked pretty in her favorite blue dress. She stirred coffee, stared into the distance then said, “You don’t really want to talk about anything.”
“I don’t want you to ask me a lot of questions.” The sun came out after the rain. “What I mean is that…”
“Are you going to stay that way? Withdrawn, distant?” She extended her hand and caressed my face.
“I’m just worried about you. I feel so alone sometimes. I feel as though you shut me out. You shut everyone out.” She had tears in her eyes.
“Don’t worry about me,” I held her hand. “Don’t worry...”
I’m 12 years old and standing in the hallway. My parents sit in the kitchen. My mother tells my father that she does not wish to remain married.
“It’s not your fault,” my father murmurs sitting by the kitchen window, “It’s not our fault,” as if to convince himself.
She announces, “Our names don’t belong together,” looking strangely calm. Her eyes are vacant, as if she were no longer there. As if they were no longer there.
Our Chechen neighbors do not accept us—the Russian mother and the half-Russian children. My parents want everyone to think that they are not threatened; they are unaffected; they are happy. But what are they trying to prove?
My grandmother calls and tells my mother, “You know very well that you married the wrong person. I knew nothing good would come of it.” My mother stands there looking at the floor with the phone in her hand. She is a little girl again, scolded, alone, on the verge of tears. She avoids taking phone calls from her parents. She is afraid of answering the phone and starts when it rings.
“You listen to your relatives too much,” my father says. “What do you want? What’s important for you?”
She says, “This place suffocates me. It is not safe for our children.”
“You can go,” my father says, “but I can’t go with you. This is where I belong.” He raises his eyes, “You know my grandparents’ families were sent to Kazakhstan, while my grandfather fought the Germans for the Soviets. Chechens lost their homes. They lost their lives. Russians moved in. Now they invade us. That’s what you do.”
My mother stands leaning against the wall with her arms wrapped around her. They both stare at the floor. The flowers on the yellow wallpaper look distant, lifeless.
A slice of crisp winter sky through the small window overlooking the vacant alley. “Nobody wants us,” I say.
“Nobody will help us, if something bad happens to us?” my sister asks worriedly.
I nod in silence and tell her, “That’s why we need to stick together.”
“Okay…,” she looks up at me. The expression on her face makes my heart ache. We turn to each other and shut everybody out to preserve as much of ourselves as possible. I don’t want to talk to our parents. My father avoids eating with us. He avoids coming home. He is absent. I don’t know where he goes. I don’t ask.
Her classmates hit my sister, call her names. She cries. She comes to my classroom in tears. “Why is everyone so mean to me?” she asks, as she wipes her tears. I tell her she should stay with me in my classroom. There is no need to go back to her class. There will be no more school. There will be no more of this. My classmates steal my notebooks, textbooks, my harmonica, everything. They burn my belongings. I watch. I watch everything burn.
We stopped going to school. My sister and I squat down on the riverbank. “I hate this place.”
She quickly gets up, “If you’re going, I’m going with you,” as though I might desert her. We spend our afternoons on the riverbank. We pretend to go to school but haven’t attended classes for weeks.
My mother talked about years before the war and how everything changed. “We had neighbors and schoolmates who came from other republics and spoke different languages.” It didn’t make sense to her that people who were friendly before became so hostile. “I can’t make out how people change so quickly.” Many years after we left the city, my mother kept going back to the same question. She would stand before the window, although she was no longer looking for an answer.
I throw a stone into the river. My sister and I stare at the ripples. “Mother will leave father,” I tell her.
“Mother told you?”
“I just know.”
My sister gets up and throws a stone into the river. She turns toward me, smiles. I walk over to her and put my arms around her. She is so small, frail, too small to understand anything.
Since the bombings began, more and more people were displaced, wounded, killed. The fighting continued. “Destroying is easy if we don’t think about it. But it is never easy to be destroyed,” my mother said to me many years later. We watched the news reports of the Chechen Wars, the Beslan school hostage crisis and other bombings and attacks. Sometimes I think to myself that it might have been easier if we were destroyed. My parents float in a river with blood streaming between them. I see my mother standing against the darkness. There is no sound. She is absorbed. She doesn’t recognize me. She walks to the river and I follow her. My mother finds herself alone in her own reflection. She does not recognize herself in the river. The water is deep and the silence is heavy.
Lisa stood on the balcony holding a glass of red wine. The sun was setting over Brussels. “Did your mother feel accepted, after returning to her home?”
“She was no longer the same person.”
“What happened after you moved?”
Maybe my mother realized that it didn’t make much difference. Maybe it was not a matter of where we were. But rather, it was a question of who we were. If she returned home alone, she might have been able to return to her own community without much difficulty. Clouds were crossing the sky.
I turned and looked at Lisa as though she was a stranger and felt guilty for thinking that. I smiled and said, “You are very caring, but I’m tired and this will go on forever. Don’t torture me like this. I don’t want you to ask me any more questions about the past. This will haunt me and exhaust me, however hard I try to get away.”
My mother looks at our apartment for the last time, “Let’s go,” then shuts the door, “We must leave,” she says and holds our hands.
When we look back, my sister asks, “Where is Father?”
I sense that he is standing behind the pastel yellow curtain, watching us go. Will I ever see him again?