We returned safe and sound from the action, though, God is my witness, I went there as I go to sleep at night, putting my soul in His hands. We got plenty of ammo and most importantly food. I filled a cart with warm clothes and rallied a couple of cows to pull it back to camp. We hid them in a bear cave in the woods. The colonel said he used to hunt here and the bears don’t hibernate until late November. Hopefully we’ll be back to collect the clothes till then. He won’t let us eat the food yet though and we keep everything in a secure container, because he got it into his head that the mission was to easy, we didn’t meet the expected resistance, so it might be a trap, perhaps a locating device, or poison, or who knows what. I think they are just sick and tired of this war, but the colonel doesn’t listen to me.
We buried Yoshka yesterday. He was the oldest man in the unit – or even in the army for all I know. He was an 80 years old, 2 meters tall heavy infantry man, under my command, first class private. His hair would have been white, if it weren’t so burnt and smeared all the time. He carried his regular long range support weapon and a 20kg antitank recoil-less rifle. If anyone asked him why he carried that weapon, since there were no tanks around anymore, he’d always ask the guy back why was he carrying his balls still, since there were no women around either. He was my subordinate, yet I always called him „Sir” or „Papa” Yoshka. The medic said something about a lung disease or edema, but I think he simply died of old age. We must be a hell of an army if our soldiers die of old age.
I arrived from the raid just as he was taking his last breath. He asked for the dog, Rogozhin. He told the dog to take good care of his son and daughter before he arrives to them. They had died in the first days of the nuclear bombing on Moscow. Since then, he took care of their souls from this life, he said – and it was his belief that, since he was old and would die too, eventually, he would need a trusted living being to take care of those two until he gets to them. And the stray black dog with a white left ear was found for this task.
Now I’ll have to write letters to fifteen grand children and grand-grand children. They gave me a bag full of letters that Papa Yoshka had received since the beginning of the war. I don’t even know who to send it to. I’m not sure if I should read them, more than it is necessary to establish their origin and write back. But I took one and I couldn’t help it, I read it all.
„Grandpa, mama told me that I will grow up just like you, two meters tall and strong as a bull, and I will pull the cart with flowers alone to the fair and I will reach the apples from the trees without a ladder. But I don’t believe her, because now I am only one meter and fifteen centimeters and they make me read and write instead of picking apples. And I don’t have all that much time till I have to be two meters like you.”
Who are we to make war on life itself? Who are we to teach our children about rifles and death? If I ever have children, I will hide them where nobody can find them, I will disguise them in wild animals if need be or teach them to appear mad, before I’ll let them go to war. And it is not because of what I have seen or done here, it is because war never ends, it propagates, it grows in people’s minds like cancer until there is no stopping it.
I would love them that much, Joconde Abraham, but never more than I would love you. I wouldn’t love anybody more than that. I hope you don’t mind that I say this so often. It is a litany and a quiet belief in this raging time that I could not escape. That none of us could escape.
As I was writing the first letter to Yoshka’s grandchildren, I noticed the street address – Zhukov, 15. That’s just near the park when I first met you. And then I realized that when Yoshka was born, the street did not exist, it was almost a century ago, when Zhukov himself was still alive. What a breathing history, what a treasure of peace and wisdom was my Papa Yoshka. The things he must have seen rise and fall, the armies, the lives. What great patience and love, to wait and endure for over thirty years to see his wife again and those he must have loved and lost from his youth.
But God will give me strength and I will do the same. It is a time to endure like he did. And there will be a time to love.
To Joconde Abraham, June 26