Essays On War

Maryana Prokhasko. Versions of Silence

Versions of Silence

His mother lives in Cyprus with a German husband. The last time I saw her was when I was a little girl. She is a little older than I am. When we saw each other in my childhood, she had already ceased to be a teenager, and I had not yet begun to become one. As happens in such cases, her adulthood, not yet guilty but clearly proclaimed, caused confusion–it was as if my future was being shown to me, as if the future actually existed.

Neither I nor she had guessed at that time that war could be our shared future, we knew that all wars were in the past, and therefore, they were unreal. Now we meet by chance at mutual relatives‘ homes; we are also like relatives, although we are not related by blood. She flew from Cyprus to see her son, who came on a short leave from the front. We recognize the similarities and differences in our life experiences, the former of which lessen the age gap, but in their sum, these life experiences  make us closer.  There’s fun at the table. Everyone is drinking champagne. Danya does not drink. He is barely in his twenties. He is tall, thin, and very handsome. Black curly hair, carelessly tousled, only emphasizes with its carelessness the unspoiled, open charm of his youth. He doesn’t say how it is there; I don’t dare ask. He is attentive and kind to each of us. In each of us, there is somewhere the tension associated with him, but in him–ease, relaxation. „His dad is from Afghanistan,“ she tells me later in the kitchen, sensually intoxicated, „he’s as boring as this rain; he doesn’t understand anything about this war nor anything about Danya. He lives in his Riga, does his boring business, and tells me that he must be taken out from here, from the war. And I only pray for one thing: that Ukraine wins and he survives. Tomorrow, I will go with him to his brother Vasya’s grave. I remember my mother was still alive; she went blind at the end. Vasya looked at her and cried… he felt sorry for her…“

When I leave, Danya gets up from the table to hug me. He is tall. „Tell me, where can I read your books?“ he asks kindly. „My friends and I are reading.“ „These are children’s books,“ I smile, „you won’t be interested.“ „It will be just right,“ he says in such a way that I immediately believe it. His comment about his friends evokes such a tender emotion in me that I suddenly understand: I know what he saw and experienced there. That word, the way he said it, tells me more than detailed reports from the front. I imagine these men, grown men, reading aloud a children’s book, and suddenly I understand the nature of that beauty that sometimes, but no, more often than occasionally, I notice on the faces of the soldiers, on Danya’s face. This is the beauty of simplicity: as if the war had illuminated it with its darkness–the pure, original beauty of the human face.

We exchange phone numbers, and I later find him on the Signal network used by the military. To the question „How are you?“ he always replies: „Good, thank you,“ always with a smiley face emoji. I don’t ask him, “Where are you?” Christmas is coming, and I want to send him present,  but they are „not sitting still“ and are „far from civilization.“ We agree that he will tell me when he is near a post office. „Even if it’s after Christmas,“ I write to him, thinking that Christmas continues even after Christmas and that maybe God was born, died, and rose again just so that people could tell each other about it, making these connections between each other and their duration even stronger. With its darkness, war illuminates the value of human contact, illuminates it in such a way that life itself becomes identical to it. In some way, to get close to the war zone is not only to share that pain, not only to feel involved, but also to touch the nakedness of values: friendship, loyalty, and devotion. During my youth, my peers weren’t dying in war; they were dying of drug overdoses, committing suicide, and loss of meaning was driving choices. War, on the other hand, leaves no choice but to choose meaning.

„What will we do after the war?“ A question aimed at the future adds grounds for retaining meaning. A friend of my friend decided to give a bike to his brother, who had never owned one before. After the war. They agreed on this before the task, during which the person to whom the bike was to be presented died. Danya appears after the New Year and gives me the branch address where I can send his gift. True, the Internet connection is very poor, a few minutes for two days, but I manage to ask him if he wants something specific that he likes. And he manages to answer: „Silence.“ His request, that one word, tells me more than long rants could. But how to fulfill his order? Where to get silence for Danya? The first thing that comes to mind is a shell. A shell that preserves the noise of the sea is a cliché of silence. My friend says that she has such a shell, a souvenir from Crimea that she can give me, but there is an inscription in Russian–more of a sneer than silence. A hum, rumble, whistling, rustling, explosion, roar, groan, scream–with what silence should these sounds be enveloped, with what whisper should they be neutralized, with what comfort should they be drowned out? How to protect the one who protects you? Can the thermal socks that I prepared a long time ago be able to do this? And chocolate bars? Are Haribo gummy bears capable? How to endow these things with the properties of silence? Is it possible to see silence, feel its taste, and smell it? How does silence feel to the touch? My gaze rests on a heart-shaped stone that sits among others on my shelf, and I decide that a stone is a much better embodiment of silence than a shell–especially if it is a pebble from the river that flows in the native city. I am adding it to the gift and a photo of the river to which this stone belonged. Any image, especially a photograph, is a form of silence, no matter how loudly it speaks. I also add a children’s picture book. I don’t want to burden him with it, as he is constantly on the move, but when I once posed the terrible question: „Are there children there?“ to a soldier, the answer was: „Yes,“ and I understood that it could be a gift to someone else. This understanding is imbued with the horror of powerlessness.

I send my package, full of my own ideas of silence, slightly tinged with guilt, some elusive sense of redemption, but more with tenderness and gratitude, and begin to wait for it to arrive at the post office. It arrives.

Several days pass, but no one picks it up. Danya has not been in touch for more than a week. I’m waiting. This silence is oppressive, terrible, and unbearable.

I don’t know how she can stand it there in Cyprus.


Translated by Yulia Lyubka and Kate Tsurkan