Have you ever learned so many names at once that you forgot your own for a moment? And when those names and voices come to you out of the darkness, when you wake into them, in that space where you don’t know if you’re dreaming or not, do you even know who you are?
Lenny hears them before he sees, and feels them before he hears.
“My name is Talia.”
“I’m Sam. Where’s my wife?”
“Dr. Silver here. Who’s there?”
“Where is my Dad? I don’t see him.”
“Is Caleb all right?”
Many, many voices like that. They rise, a crescendo of pleading and bewilderment, until Lenny puts his head between his knees, using them to cover his ears.
There is the smell of copper, and earth, and human waste. There is no light at all, but Lenny knows where he is, with an instinctual awareness. Half a memory. And memory is the one lit candle in the dark.
The weeping, the rat-tat, the screams, the mechanical trawl of equipment, then silence, except for the muffled retreat of tracks on the soil. Even they, the ones above, who have done this, flee from death, though they wear it too, as a badge of meaning.
The calling out goes on and on. Lenny can’t think “he” is crying or “she” is pleading or “they” are asking. It is “the” mourning, “the” grief, “the” desperation. He has to be clinical, or else all his thoughts will become screams – theirs and his together.
No one asks why it’s happening. It has happened. No one asks what they’ve done. It isn’t anything they’ve done, and they know this. They ask for connection, for joining, for gathering together their lost. Or they lament, sometimes only the loss of themselves.
“I would have gone to university.”
“I was in love. I don’t know where she is.”
“My baby. He would have come in just weeks. I still feel him.”
Lenny has no answers for them. When his father died, his mother went to work, and he became the parent for his sister and brother. He is the parent now. They ask him for something to drink, for anything, and he has nothing to give them.
Somehow he is different than they are. He is alive in a way they are yet to be. Or he is dead, because he cannot grieve for himself. He does not know which.
They tell him where it hurts, and he has no way to make the hurt stop. They say they are afraid, and he tries to find words to say, but they stick in his throat like moist soil.
Before his mother had to stay away at nights, she would tell him stories. And he could sleep, because she did. So Lenny begins to tell them stories.
Confusion at first. They don’t understand the relevance. They don’t know if these are instructions or another tragedy exposited over too long a span. But eventually, the wailing becomes murmuring, and the murmuring a quiet, and Lenny can hear the cadence of his own voice carrying the silence, making it sane.
Days. Months. Decades. Lenny speaks. He talks of Talia, and the meaning of her name. He speaks of Samuel’s wife, and how she once chased a mouse from the kitchen with a pair of beets for clubs. Lenny tells of a difficult patient of Dr. Silver’s who did not respond to any treatment. The doctor does not protest that this never occurred. It is the sum of other stories. He seems satisfied.
Lenny tells of the village. Of Smoliarka. Of it’s life, the mundane things, the way the forge smelled. The way a certain woman baked bread. He speaks of the little Church there. It is ages before he tells of the girl who defied the soldiers and was summarily shot. They are all very quiet, then. Quieter than death. He even tells of how he hid under a barrel, and then behind the wheel of a truck, and then finally in the grave itself. There is an understanding in their silence, even pity.
When the sound comes back to them, it is faint at first, and Lenny does not stop. He does not want to lose their attention. And then there is air, and sunlight, and some people begin to cry out as they have not done in years.
“Where am I? Where is my family?”
But most of them ask, with their silence, for the familiar earth. The voices above are students, government officials, news people. They are looking beneath their feet for the past, so they can understand their lives. Time gives meaning to those who walk on the earth. Death still fascinates. When they speak, they say:
“Who was this one?”
“Was this a soldier? A doctor?”
“Here is a woman. Here is a child.”
And they ask questions they know the answers to. “Why was this done? What did these people do to deserve this?”
And then they think better, and they put the soil back, and they mark the spot, and forbid people to dig, and Lenny can resume telling stories, and the crying voices quiet down again, beneath the earth, where there is only listening, a night of endless listening, and one still voice, still but speaking for them all.
Original prompt: written upon seeing the image – “A boy woke in a pile of heads – they weren’t dead – they talked to him instead…”
Note: Smoliarka (Smolyarka in Russian) is a village in Belarus that is one of many sites of “mass graves“. Belarus (allied to the Germans & resisting integration into the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics) was a nation of such grievous atrocities on the part of the Belarusian SS (counterpart of the German SS) by horrific methods, e.g. stacking the living in pits and shooting through several bodies at once to spare bullets, often burying them still alive, that a high ranking German Nazi official recommended the institution of the gas chambers as a more humane method, calling the Belarusian techniques savagery. This description is relatively mild, actually, compared to things perpetrated by the Belorussians that one cannot bear to describe here. And yet, while Poland, Lithuania, Russia, and Germany, among other nations, are well known areas of genocide, The Republic of Belarus receives almost no overt attention for it, like the Ukraine, due to its cold war usefulness to the United States and ongoing value as a geopolitical and intelligence asset. See John Loftus, The Belarus Secret.
One other note: the term “mass grave” is a misnomer and a pretty, clean, sanitary word designed to relegate the past to the past and make discussion in the present more palatable. A grave is a place where someone is interred with respect. A more appropriate term for places like this is at least “pit” or “death pit” or “slaughter pit” which more accurately describes the intention and results. “Mass graves” while often used nobly to bury enemy combatants or plague victims is, in reference to what occurred in Belarus, a term more appropriate to holocaust deniers or obscurantists than to any rational history of genocide.