Essays On War

Conversations across the fence. Eugenia Kuznetsova

Conversations across the fence

On the morning of February 24, I started communicating with the dead. There’s no need to specify the year; it will be enough to say only the month and date for many years to come. I don’t speak with the dead en masse, only with my grandfather. 

Having overcome a bout of hysteria and stopped a severe panic attack for not organizing the children’s departure early despite all the signs pointing to war, I spoke to my grandfather for the first time.

“You always said so,” I told him.

This is a good conversation starter with the dead and the living, especially with the living. Praise the interlocutor, admit your mistakes, and the conversation will proceed easily and casually, even if the conversation is actually a monologue.

He always said, “Russia will not leave us alone,” and I thought: Perhaps one day, but it won’t affect us. Well, it did.

“Do you remember,” I said later on, “how you wouldn’t watch the Russian comedy sketch show KVN?” You never thought those jokes were funny. I understand now that they aren’t, but I thought you were just talking like a typical grandpa back then. Although you smiled once when you learned that the team from Kryvyi Rih won because that’s your hometown. The team leader hailed from the ninety-fifth block, where you lived half your life, forty minutes away from the center by trolleybus. That leader is now the supreme commander of the Ukrainian Armed Forces in the war against Russia. That’s right, him–the petit guy in leather pants. Now he’s without pants. Well, not entirely without pants – now he’s in a military uniform. The British Prime Minister is being led by him through the Maidan in Kyiv, and some girl is presenting them with a clay rooster. Why a rooster? It’s a long story: essentially, this rooster is from Bucha, the Russians were there, they destroyed everything and killed hundreds of people. The rooster survived.

And I, grandpa, have not returned to our house for six months, the house you built. When gas still cost a penny, you installed a stove and a heating system there. Well done, grandpa. My grandmother, my mother, and your niece from Zaporizhzhya and her family are there now. You would be glad because you always loved guests. But, you know, they are not guests. There are daily missile strikes in Zaporizhzhya. In Vinnytsia? The same. Although they’re less frequent.

Sometimes I chat with my grandfather for so long that I eventually fall asleep until I open my news feed in the middle of the night. Then I start conversing with him again.

Oh, there’s more, grandpa! I never would have imagined that your native village would one day appear on the front page of one of the most famous newspapers in the world, but your other granddaughter wrote about it. I keep monitoring her presence online. When a green circle appears on my screen, it means that she is safe and sound. I even dream of this circle because my palms sometimes sweat if it’s been gone for too long. Then I start looking for information about where there was a missile strike, somewhere in Kharkiv or near Donetsk. Where else can she be? Yes, Kharkiv is also being shelled. Constantly.

While talking to my grandfather, I remember how often he sat in front of the TV back in the summer of 2014, watching our people defend the east. At that time, he’d undergone surgery on his vocal cords but had already lost his voice before that. Despite all those years without his voice, I could read his lips and understand him perfectly, but still, he tried to make life easier for those around him and communicated with many hand gestures.

“What’s going on there?” I asked.

My grandfather put his hands in the shape of a ring. It meant that our people had successfully surrounded Donetsk.

But then everything changed for the worse at the Battle of Ilovaisk.

There was a lot of talk back then about the “Donetsk people.” It made my grandfather angry. He said, “Even if they sent their people to the city itself, the people in the villages there are exactly the same as here.”

“And you said so,” I repeat now.

I tend to refrain from starting conversations with my grandfather from the beginning. It’s as if I’m showing him the latest news headlines. As a student, I often took my computer (he’d given me the money for it), sat next to him, and showed him some videos or articles so that he could read from the screen. These days I sit down, open up the main page of Ukrayinska Pravda (remember grandpa, how back in 2001, you used to ask me to print articles from there for you?), and there is a counter on the page header showing the latest number of dead Russian soldiers. I know there are too many new words like header or counter, grandpa, but you never feared new words. He’d sit with my classmates and me on the weekend and immediately ask to explain what words like “supervisor” meant. We explained.

I share only bits and pieces of information with my grandfather. This is quite convenient in conversations with the dead: I’m not talking about mass burials, executions, or those voices that tear up everything inside.

Sometimes, I tell him about his great-granddaughter.

“I put her umbilical cord in a box under a pair of earrings. I’ll bury it outside our house once I’m back. She hasn’t been to Ukraine yet, but I promise she’ll take her first steps on the grass of your yard like all the children in our family.”

It’s a good thing you don’t ask for details, grandpa.

Today I could only spend some of my time talking to you. But I closed my eyes before going to sleep and saw you. You asked with your eyebrows: What’s going on there?

And I showed you a ring with my hands. Today the enemy is surrounded. If you can’t see the encirclement from there, just look at my hands.

Translated by Yulia Lyubka and Kate Tsurkan