Love and Tenderness
Kharkiv’s Honcharivka neighborhood is overflowing with lilacs. Against the background of the dark brick of the local walls and wooden outbuildings, the pastel colors and half-tones of the flowers seem particularly resonant. Older women venture out to the car with humanitarian aid in house slippers, in terry dressing gowns, covering their curlers with handkerchiefs. They disassemble packages filled with products and share news. While my companions are completing the almost biblical rite of giving people their daily bread, I walk from one lilac bush to another in search of happy five-petalled flowers. I carefully twist the elastic tassels. Happy lilac flowers have been a ritual of mine since childhood, and this May, they were especially abundant. I have a handful of five-petalled lilacs; I stand a little apart from the women’s group and slowly peck them one by one. As you know, to fulfill a wish, a lucky lilac flower must be eaten. The wish suddenly turns out to be more than one, a great and shared wish for the spring of 2022, and the flowers taste bitter, so I wince. One of the women looks at me and smiles as she wraps herself in a leopard print robe.
“Do you want tea?” she suddenly asks.
I refuse, but she ironically waves her hand at me in a warm, familial-like way and still brings a hot enamel mug with sweet black tea out of the house. I swallow it carefully, crouching on the wooden steps of the house, washing down my lilac, my desires, my bitterness, the cause of which is not only flowers, and I absorb the skin-soaked silence of the old quarter. I love Honcharivka. I could live here. This space seems to be tailored for me. I want to remember this homely, gentle story in contrast to the horrors broadcast from Kharkiv every day. I pull it out like a light walnut kernel from a hard shell. In the distance, the exits of our air defense can be heard, pigeons are flying from the roofs, flapping their wings, and women are returning to their homes little by little. I return the landlady her enamel mug with painted daisies and cornflowers. Time to get into the cars.
I have a contusion in my right ear. Back in March, a shell exploded on the right side of our volunteer car. Therefore, with my right ear, I now listen to cosmic noises, the rustling radio ether of my own blood, but mainly to the gentle voice of the sea, like in a shell. Therefore, I ask the moderators of literary events to sit to my left, and those who want to quietly and quickly tell me something important to do the same. At this place, the Ukrainians and I usually laugh, list the steep experiences gained during half a year of full-scale war, and joke about our tragedy. Foreigners, on the other hand, are visibly tense and embarrassed. And I feel sorry for them and their toy world. Everything that is not the Ukrainian experience is now pale and unconvincing. They sympathize with you, fear for you, and admire you just because you are returning to the war, under Russian missiles, to the field of genocide, closer to the front. And you just sit and glow quietly and softly, like a lamp in a library, because tomorrow morning you will be in Ukraine. Yes, in the great war. Home. Western friends care but cannot fully empathize without our experience and multi-voiced connection with the earth.
Empathy makes the bug-out bag heavier. I have many photos of Ukrainian cities‘ wounds on my phone, sometimes still very recent. This is my archive for the future tribunal, for the long war of identities, for the fury not to subside. Memory cards swell and replace each other. But to foreigners, after countless photos of smoky ruins, shot neighborhoods, and tattered bodies, I’m still looking to show something else. A blooming cherry blossom bathed in radiance on one of the streets of Borodyanka. Calm water pools near Kharkiv, in which clouds are reflected. Odesa beaches are overgrown with grass: no one goes ashore because of mines, so loud seagulls rule there. A dog sleeping, hugging a dirty stuffed toy at the site of a bloody rocket attack on Vinnytsia. This space is tailored for me; I live in each of the wounded cities. And I feel a great tenderness highlighted by terrible wounds. It’s like when a soldier who was killed in the war is to be brought home, and you speak mentally with him, alive, until your final farewell.
For many years, I researched how another war, the Bosnian war, affected a person special to me. They went through that thorny archeology, got injured, tripped over internal ruins, and blew themself up several times on invisible trip wires. It was definitely worth it. Now I’m watching live how the war changes another person special to me. It makes them rougher, more insensitive, and at the same time, more helpless. It exhausts and extracts meanings but also erases fine lines. It elevates, because war always elevates people who move the world, but also puts them under attack. I can do nothing about it except bang my fist against the wall and remind myself that love and tenderness are patient and merciful.
Sometimes I miss our terrible March. Every day it seemed that the air was filled with a light ringing: the previous life, our illusions, and hopes for their continuation slowly fell apart in small fragments. Dismantling the remains of old supporting structures in those days and trying to make at least something new and functional out of them, we used the word “love” too often, but there was no wastefulness to it. Instead, the fear of speaking about love for the last time and the readiness to get hurt while speaking. So we clung to everything that made us alive, lasting, and durable. Tenderness was exposed, vulnerable, and irresistible. I remember Vinnytsia then, a corridor from East to West pierced by the disturbing sun, grasping, painfully strong hugs, and goodbyes. Each time seemed to be the last time. Apartments where people sleep snugly on the floor, snuggled up tight. The Ukrainian cultural elite waited a long time for the air raid siren to stop in the underground passage under the Urozhai market. There was a several-day queue at the Territorial Defense Forces’ collection point. Boxes, boxes, boxes of ammo. Volunteer bags smelling of sedatives. A sense of timelessness between the missing and the non-existent. And our incredible mutual sensitivity. The depth of forgiveness and acceptance.
Time is now accelerated, and social processes are fluid. Neuroticism and trauma gradually made communication difficult. Old herbariums of contacts are crumbling, and social bubbles are flaking. You periodically warn yourself against being overly trusting, against calling acquaintances your friends, who will undoubtedly use the opportunity to stab you in the back. In short, everything is as usual.
There is a Spanish fairy tale about a man named Miguel who turned into stone. A prince became so friendly with the son of a poor cobbler that he followed him into exile. After a series of adventures, a test took place. Miguel, a commoner, accidentally received a warning about the deadly dangers ahead for his friend-king. Still, in pursuit, he received a curse: if he uttered even a word of this, he would immediately turn to stone. He managed to protect his friend from all threats, but he was falsely accused of malice, and at this moment of injustice, he did speak. He started to turn to stone in front of his friend, first up to the knees, then to the waist, then to the neck, and then completely. The finale, however, is happy: the prince longed for his friend so much and repented that he was ready to shorten his life to revive him. And it was this readiness that brought Miguel back to life.
Today, walking among people, I catch myself with the frightening thought that I often find myself among such Miguels of various degrees of petrification, and that I am gradually turning into stone, too. Humanity and sincere speech amid terrible injustice, and bloody war, are costly. The hardest will be those who survive–not even because “only the dead saw the end of the war.” It’s just that those who remain will have to find within themselves and painfully restart the love and tenderness to revive themselves and the rest of those who became petrified.
This strange mutual bond between love and tenderness is what so uniquely distinguishes Ukrainians from the enemy.
Translated by Yulia Lyubka and Kate Tsurkan