“I hate them with perfect hatred: I count them mine enemies.”
We love the country. The quiet. The three cars that pass the house on the busy days. The Abrahamic wash of stars most nights: go count them, if you can. The afternoons, when our boys tumble into the kitchen looking for lunch, the scent of spring grass in their hair, their cheeks pink with the early warmth of the season. But what I love most is the frequent and powerful illusion that we have left the world and its wars behind.
Lunch is serious business. Washed and seated, the boys bow their heads and plow through: Bless us, O Lord, and these Thy gifts. The younger boy dutifully tacks on his petitions: For those left behind, for the soldiers, for Zelensky, for our friends in Europe—a pause, blue eyes measuring the room—and for kids scared by the bombs. Which is a prayer for himself. In these weeks not quite far enough from the ruin that Russia brings, he clutches my leg as NATO jets roar over this village a couple of times each week. Flying low, suggesting that despite the relative lull, this war is only gaining steam. Something yet unseen claws at the bars of its cage.
When I was their age, come Fourth of July we would walk to my aunt’s house overlooking Commencement Bay and lie on her flat roof to watch the fireworks. The best part of the show came early, the sun still high, when the Blue Angels would set off from McChord and shriek across the sky in formations so close it felt like if we’d just had a little boost we could have reached out, grabbed on, and been launched off and away and into the stratosphere.
I delivered newspapers then—simultaneously, two News Tribune routes and one Seattle Times—all in the Stadium District where we lived. I chucked the world onto 200 north end doorsteps and apartment hallway runners every day for six years. A dream job for a news junkie, which I was. I read those papers every day, front to back, even the classifieds. When it worked out, which was often, a friend with a Seattle P-I route would leave an extra copy–there were almost always extras—in our milk box in the morning and I would read that, too. And afterward, with fingers shining blue-black with newsprint that ran up to my elbows I would run home and there be directed to the basement utility sinks and the Fels-Naptha® that took off the ink and probably a couple layers of skin in the deal.
By the age of 10, I was all too aware of Vietnam. What I couldn’t get in print I got nightly from Cronkite, Brinkley, or Roger Mudd, my favorite. But the violence of that time and in that place, whichever side was responsible on that particular day, was far away and across an ocean. I’d never heard an air raid siren that was anything more than a test, every Wednesday at 3:00. I’d never experienced the sickening *whump* of air defense ordnance. And, despite my print-media-assisted fluency in the expediencies of war, despite my pre-teen amusement at the personal absurdities of politicians made indelible via the art of MAD magazine and political caricature—adding acres to Hubert Humphrey’s forehead and slope to Richard Nixon’s ski jump ramp of a nose—and despite expertise in the atomic age ethos of hunkering under our school desks (each time we practiced my friend Julio whispering what still feels like the funniest thing ever: Kiss your ass goodbye, amigo.) I never once feared a real bomb dropping on my real family. For that I would have to wait half a century.
I feared, rather, what boys then typically feared, which was girls. One girl, really. She was a year younger and her daily, too-near presence haunted me up through the ninth grade at Jason Lee Junior High. A girl whose name you have no greater chance of learning than I do of forgetting.
But there is no relief in these memories. No more than there is in work or play. Nearly eight weeks in, and I still have found no effective distraction from this war. An hour’s walk to and from the little church in the neighboring village is no help when the church is locked and a knock on a door reveals that the priest is rarely around and even more rarely in any condition to offer counsel. Friends write to tell us they are going back to Kyiv. We envy their confidence as we lament their facile, desperate optimism. Moscow is not done despite its humiliating retreat from Kyiv. Indeed, because of it, this enemy will only find contentment if it can add to the devastation of Irpin and the rape of Bucha.
Another friend, a Russian, has decided to return to Moscow and we are in disbelief. There is no convincing her otherwise. Her departure is just another accusation from on high that I have failed to do the one thing needful: to find a way to talk to my boys about the war. There will be no rest until I do.
How would you do it? How would you talk about a family crouching in a dank root cellar for a month, afraid to breathe lest it betray itself to the platoon they hear out on the street? Hoping it will pass by without bringing the war into their kitchen, conducting a search, an execution? How to explain why the price of crude oil matters more than a human life? How to explain the intercepted phone call, a Russian wife giggling, the raw, animal thrill transparent in her voice when she tells her soldier husband to “use protection” when he rapes Ukrainian women? Perhaps, from the place where you read this, you’re thinking that I should avoid talking to my six-year-old and eight-year-old about rape committed in the service of ideology? About rape at all? Perhaps I should wait at least until they stop sleeping with stuffed animals?
The older boy offers the same petition at each meal: For death to all the Russians.
Would you judge him? Lecture him about the evils of Russophobia? Take a courageous stand against this eight-year-old alongside the profoundly unserious who are ready to condemn Ukraine for its unwillingness to negotiate with a psychopath? Or would you line up alongside those clinging to their fetishization of an ideology so spent, so devoid of human compassion, so ignorant, so juvenile, and yet so perversely and conveniently mercantile, that they’re happy to enlist the help of any celebrity mug they can find, right or left, it doesn’t matter—from craven news anchors to faded rock stars–in order to pin Russian violence on NATO? Are you content to engage in that most vile sin of this age—privileged disengagement—because the unprovoked atrocities being committed in Ukraine by Russians are too much to deal with? You can’t be bothered to care?
Then we are on different teams.
My boys’ grandparents live in a city 800 kilometers from Russian forces amassed in the east. And yet the Kremlin-sent cowards have hit that city three times this week with missile strikes. The older boy sleeps badly, up routinely at 1:00 a.m., moving from mama to his brother to me, checking. He hollers in his sleep in Russian “za chem? za chem?” (What for? What for?) I go out for my walk after supper and I know that a ways up the single road that runs through this part of Moravia I will pass a tall birch that howls in the spring wind and I know that right around that spot, 15 minutes out from home, my phone will ring and it will be my eight-year-old: “Come home,” he will say, “it’s getting dark.”
He was six-weeks old when nearly a century’s worth of Ukrainian rage coalesced into open revolt and ousted the Putin stooge who ruled the nation. When titushky roamed the streets snuffling around for violence, when students were beaten by riot cops, when snipers holed up on the veranda of a grand old Kyiv theater gunned down protestors, when the small caliber bullet hit our balcony window, when Kremlin hires threw acid in the face of an anti-corruption activist, and Moscow thugs in Crimea burned not books but entire libraries devoted to Tatar and Ukrainian literature. And then, their appetite for violence momentarily sated, when all that could be stolen or burned had been, just as the nation was hitting its stride in recovery, Covid hit. And paramedics in hazmat suits came knocking to haul me off to the hospital and he stood in the corridor of our flat, fists balled at the end of his skinny arms and howled at them: “Don’t touch my papa!”
My boy’s time of grace has been defined by violence; death reluctant to keep its distance. I trust his sense of things and I trust his prayers.
His petition is not a spontaneous explosion of anger but calculated. He’s been chewing on this, as he tends to. His prayer is provoked by the horror of war, by an ugliness that I would otherwise never have him witness. Hardly original in spirit, just honest. A remnant of that old time religion of lex orandi, lex credendi, which is, in rough translation: people will pray about what most weighs on their hearts.
From the imprecations of the psalmist 10 centuries before Christ: “Surely thou wilt slay the wicked, O God: depart from me therefore, ye bloody men” to Walt Whitman, elbow-deep in the bloody dressings of America’s Civil War…
Spirit of hours I knew, all hectic red one day, but pale as death next day;
Touch my mouth, ere you depart—press my lips close!
Leave me your pulses of rage! bequeath them to me! fill me with currents convulsive!
Let them scorch and blister out of my chants, when you are gone;
Let them identify you to the future in these songs.
…to the child’s war verse my boys learn during a SKYPE call with their friend, now, too, a refugee who has fled with his family. A childish rhyme peppered with the nenormativnaya leksika—foul language—my wife would rather they never learned. They blush and offer her hugs and then recite the words again:
трусь трусь русский русь – rus, trus russky rus – trembling coward, Russian boy –
на войну собрался – na vaynu sabralsya – primed to go to war–
как увидел пулемет – kak uvidel pulemyot – saw the kalash aimed his way –
сразу обосрался – srazu abasralsya – and shat his asshole sore.
Maundy Thursday and the Catholic faithful are walking the street of the village, each one twirling noisily a derkach, a ratchet, to exorcise unclean spirits. Western Ukrainians call the day chystiy chetver—cleansing Thursday. But these unclean spirits linger. We know the enemy has no intention to negotiate the peace. We know the boys understand things and we see them engaged in kid conversations just out of earshot. We know they know that we can’t go home but that we can’t stay here. They know that this week, much like last, will mean hours in some social support office alongside others dressed as badly as we are. They know that Ukraine cannot lose.
Western Easter today. The last of the snow has melted. A spring gale nudges along cumulus clouds and out in the field across from this farmhouse my boys race from puddle to puddle, arms outstretched, chasing ducks. They want, they have told us, a pet. The ducks disagree and end today’s chase, taking wing and settling in a small pond nearby where the boys follow and stand at pond’s edge, watching, fuming, plotting. The eight-year-old turns to his little brother—gesturing, agitated, going over scenarios that will end in capture. I open the window to call them to lunch and those blonde heads, fearfully and wonderfully made, full of life in these days ordained for them, turn and race toward the house.
Bless us, O Lord…