Dearest Nel Jia,

I had two days of calm before I was airdropped near Saynshand. Vassily died a few feet away from me – a bomb shell from the city limits artillery. I thought – we always hide behind probabilities, we say it’s unlikely to be hit by a bus in Petersburg, or by a brick falling from a roof, that only one in a million would suffer such things. But out here, it’s not one in a million, it’s one in ten, and we’re those ten.

I’m sorry. Dear, dear Nel Jia, here I am, bothering you with more troubles than the world can handle on its own. But it’s a good thing I’m here. I can finally do something for you, something great. I’m no good at singing and you’re probably already bored with my writing, I can’t paint you as Gioconda, nor can I dance or talk too well. There’s one thing I can do though. I can fight. If I come back someday and you’re alive and well, living free and happy, that’s my reward, my prize.
When I left home, my dad said: „Дорогой мальчик, идет воевать с вашей страной, возвращает с богом.” That means – Dear boy, go to war with your country, come back with God. I felt sorry for him then, because I couldn’t tell him that I was going to war for you, that I wanted to give my life for you and I also wanted to survive, so I could return to you one day.
I took „The Idiot” with me, to remind me of professor Dimitry Iosipovici Tvo, the literature professor we called Myshkin, because he had such a good heart. I told him about you when I went away, the last day before Petersburg fell. I’ve never seen such a big, warm smile in my life. He said to me: „Live! Do it for her, for me, for God! Do it for her most of all, let her dear face heal your wounds and guide your steps. Remember that French saying: Dans la guerre et dans l’amour, l’art n’est pas de gagner, c’est de survivre.”
I read that book twice already. Somehow, Nastasya Filippovna reminds me of you – and then I find myself so unworthy of such a wonderful being, I find myself sinful and incapable of ever making you happy. But then I see the napalm fire bombs falling outside the bunker, the streams of anti aircraft shells rushing towards the sky, I hear the „Katyusha” from old Andryi’s harmonica and „the Prodigy” from Maria Danilova’s walkman – and I think to myself, in that second, I’m so lucky to have your beloved face in my mind, in my dreams, to have a picture of you near my heart, with your writing on the back, saying you love me too.
I was there with Vassily when he died – he kept asking for a letter he had in his pocket, that it be sent home. It was for his wife. They got married a week before he was attached to our unit. He kept telling us how beautiful his wife was at the wedding, that she wore a crown of blue flowers, and a dress that left her shoulders naked – he kept saying that he couldn’t believe that woman was his for the rest of their lives. „Darius, he said once, forgive me, but no one, not even you, can love someone so much”. I still have his letter. I didn’t open it. I’ll have to eventually, because it’s soaked with blood. I cannot send it like that. But I’m so afraid… I’m afraid I’ll lose my confidence, that I will hate this stupid war and that I will want to come home to you at any cost, right then, so nothing can ever keep us apart again. I’m afraid, if I read that letter, my feelings for you will be more than this damn world can understand. Be with God, Vassily, I pray every night and help me through this. Maybe I can love someone as you did.
We’re behind the lines now. Probably, there will be an assault early tomorrow morning. We’ve dug in and nobody can sleep. The chaplain is praying out loud. This is so Russian – to air drop a chaplain with the para unit, and with full religious gear, no less. They must have expected we would take heavy losses. The irony is that our two medics were shot down by AA, with their entire platoons, so now we’re stuck with moral support flat.
But I swear this – tomorrow, by the time you’ll awake and go into the vineyard smelling the autumn blossoms, I will still be alive. I swear this, I must live to see you again.
If somehow I fail on this promise, forgive me. And forgive me also, as a good Christian, for all my other wrongs, as one who hopes to spend all his life with you, so you can make him right.

Yours, hopelessly devoted,
Darius Pavlovici Nettimans

Posted September 20
To Nel Jia Li