A mother

I walk alone … I’ll be walking alone for a long time now. He killed someone … My son … With a kitchen axe – I used to trim and beat meat with it. He came back from the war and killed someone here. He brought the axe back in the morning and put it away in the little cupboard where I keep the kitchenware. I think it was the same day I cooked pork cutlets for him. After a while they announced it on the television and they wrote in the evening newspaper that some fishermen had pulled a dead body out of the town lake. In pieces … A friend of mine called me: ‘Did you read it? A professional murder … With the Afghan signature … ’ My son was at home, lying on the sofa, reading a book. I didn’t know anything yet, I didn’t suspect a thing, but for some reason when she said that I looked at him. A mother’s heart …

Can you hear the dogs barking? No? But I can, as soon as I start telling anyone about it, I hear dogs barking. And dogs running … In the prison, where he’s serving his time now, there are big black Alsatians. And the people are all dressed in black, nothing but black. I get back to Minsk and I walk along the street, past the bread shop and the kindergarten, carrying a long loaf and some milk, and I hear that barking. That deafening barking. It blinds me. Once I almost got run over by a car.

Can you hear the dogs barking? No? But I can, as soon as I start telling anyone about it, I hear dogs barking. And dogs running . . .

I’d be willing to visit my son’s grave mound. I’d be willing to lie there beside him. But I don’t know … I don’t know how to live with this. Sometimes I feel afraid to go into the kitchen and see that cupboard where the axe used to lie. Can’t you hear it? Don’t you hear anything?

Boys in Zinc by Svetlana Alexievich

Now I don’t even know what he’s like, my son. What will he be like when I get him back in fifteen years? They gave him fifteen years in maximum security. How did I bring him up? He was interested in ballroom dancing. The two of us used to go to the Hermitage in Leningrad. We read books together … [She cries.] It was Afghanistan that took my son away from me …

We got a telegram from Tashkent: ‘Meet such-and-such a plane’ … I dashed out on to the balcony, I wanted to shout out with all my might: ‘He’s alive! My son has come back alive from Afghanistan! That terrible war is over for me!’ And I passed out. We got to the airport late, of course, our flight had arrived ages ago, and we found our son in the public garden. He was lying on the ground and clutching the grass, amazed that it was so green. He couldn’t believe that he was back. But there was no joy in his face …

In the evening the neighbours came round. They have a little girl and they tied a bright blue ribbon in her hair. He sat her on his knees, held her tight and cried: the tears just kept flowing on and on. Because they killed out there. And so did he …  I realized that later.

On the border the customs men had ‘trimmed off’ his foreign shorts. American. Not permitted. So he arrived without any underwear. He was bringing a dressing gown for me; I turned forty that year. They took the dressing gown away from him. He was bringing his granny a shawl and they took that too. The only thing he had when he arrived was flowers. Gladioli. But there was no joy in his face. When he got up in the morning he was still normal: ‘Mama! Mama!’ By evening his face had turned dark, his eyes were heavy with pain. I can’t describe it to you … He didn’t drink at first, not a drop, just sat there looking at the wall. He would spring up off the sofa and grab his jacket.

I used to stand in the doorway. ‘Where are you going, Valyushka?’ He just looked straight through me. And went out. I used to come back home late from work – the factory’s a long way away – and ring the doorbell, but he didn’t open up. He didn’t recognize my voice. It’s so strange – after all, he might not recognize his friends’ voices, but mine! And especially ‘Valyushka’ – I’m the only one who ever called him that. It was like he was expecting someone all the time; he was afraid. I bought him a new shirt and started trying it on him for size, and I saw cuts all over his arms.

‘What’s this?’

‘It’s nothing, mama.’

I found out about it later. After the trial. In the training camp he had slit his wrists … At an exercise he was a radio operator and he didn’t manage to heave the radio up into a tree in time, he took longer than was allowed, so the sergeant made him rake out fifty bucketfuls from the toilet and carry it all across in front of the assembled ranks. He started carrying it and passed out. In the hospital they diagnosed him with mild nervous shock. That same night he tried to slit his wrists … and a second time in Afghanistan. Just before they went out on a raid they checked and the radio wasn’t working. Some parts that were in short supply had disappeared: one of their own men had stolen them. The commander accused him of cowardice, as if he’d hidden the parts in order to avoid going with all the others. But they all stole from each other out there. They took trucks to pieces for the spare parts and took them to the dukans – those shops they had out there – to sell. They bought drugs. Drugs and cigarettes. Food. They were hungry absolutely all the time.

There was a programme about Edith Piaf on the television; we watched it together.

‘Mama,’ he asked me, ‘do you know what narcotics are?’

‘No,’ I lied.

But I was already keeping an eye on him, wondering if he was smoking something. There were no signs. But they used drugs out there – I know that.

‘How is it there, in Afghanistan?’ I asked him one day.

‘Shut up, mama!’

There was a programme about Edith Piaf on the television; we watched it together. ‘Mama,’ he asked me, ‘do you know what narcotics are?’

When he went out I reread his letters from Afghanistan. I wanted to get to the bottom of things, understand what was wrong with him. I didn’t find anything special in them. He wrote that he missed the green grass; he asked his granny to get her photo taken in the snow and send it to him. But I couldn’t see, I couldn’t feel that there was anything happening to him. They sent me back a different man. He wasn’t my son. And I was the one who sent him into the army – he had a deferment. I wanted him to become a real man. I persuaded him and myself that the army would make him better and stronger. I sent him off to Afghanistan with his guitar; I arranged a sweet buffet to see him off and he invited his friends, and girls. I remember I bought ten cakes.

There was only one time he spoke about Afghanistan. It was early evening. He came into the kitchen. I was preparing a rabbit. The bowl was bloody. He soaked his fingers in that blood and looked at it, examined it. And he said to himself:

‘They brought my friend back with his stomach completely shattered … He asked me to shoot him …  And I shot him …’

His fingers were covered in blood … from the rabbit meat. It was fresh. He grabbed a cigarette with those fingers and went out on to the balcony. And he didn’t say another word to me for the rest of the evening.

I went to the doctors: ‘Give me back my son! Save him!’ I told them everything. They checked him, they looked, but apart from radiculitis they didn’t find anything wrong with him.

Once I came home and there were four young men I didn’t know sitting at the table.

‘Mama, they’re from Afghanistan. I found them at the railway station. They’ve got nowhere to spend the night.’

‘I’ll bake you a fruit pie right now. This very moment. In a jiffy.’ I was absolutely delighted.

They lived with us for a week. I didn’t count, but I think they drank about three crates of vodka. Every evening I met five strangers at home. The fifth one was my son … I didn’t want to listen to their conversations. I was frightened. But I couldn’t help overhearing. They said that when they had to wait in an ambush for two weeks at a time, they were given stimulants to boost their courage. But that’s all kept secret. Which weapons were best for killing … from what distance … I remembered that later, when it had all happened … I started thinking later, frantically trying to remember. But before that there was only fear. ‘My God,’ I used to tell myself, ‘they’re all mad. They’re not right in the head.’

That night … before that day when he killed … I had a dream that I was waiting for my son. I kept waiting and waiting, but he didn’t come. And then they brought him to me. Those four ‘Afghanis’ brought him to me. And they threw him on the dirty concrete floor. You know, the floor at home is concrete. Our kitchen floor’s like one in a prison.

By that time he had already got into the foundation studies department at the radio engineering college. He wrote a good essay. He was happy that everything was going really well. I even started to think that he was calming down. That he would go to college. Get married. But when the evening came … I was afraid of the evening. He used to sit there and stare blankly at the wall. Fall asleep in the armchair … I wanted to dash to him, throw myself over him and not let him go. And now I dream about my son: he’s little and he’s asking for something to eat. He’s always hungry. He reaches out his hands … In my dreams I always see him as little and humiliated. And in real life? A meeting every two months. Four hours of talking to him through a pane of glass …

Two meetings a year when I can at least feed him. And those dogs barking. I dream about that barking. It won’t ever let me be.

This man started courting me. He brought flowers. When he brought me the flowers I started shouting, ‘Get away from me, I’m the mother of a murderer.’

t first I was afraid of meeting someone I knew. I shut myself in the bathroom and waited for the walls to fall in on me. I felt like everyone in the street recognized me and pointed me out to each other and whispered: ‘Remember that gruesome business? It was her son who killed him. He quartered the man. The Afghan signature …’ I only went out into the street at night. I learned all the night birds. I could recognize them from their calls.

The investigation went on and on. It lasted months. He didn’t say anything. I went to the Burdenko Military Hospital in Moscow and found some boys there who served in the special operations forces, like he did. I confided in them.

‘Boys, what would my son kill someone for?’

‘If he did, there must have been a reason.’

I had to convince myself that he could have done it … killed someone. I questioned them about it for a long time and realized that he could have!
I asked about death. No, not about death, but about killing. But talking about that didn’t make them feel anything special, the kind of feelings that any killing usually arouses in a normal person who has never seen blood. They talked about war as a job, where you had to kill. Then I met some boys who had been in Afghanistan too, and when the earthquake happened in Armenia they went there with the rescue teams. What interested me, I was already obsessed with it, was: were they afraid? What did they feel at the sight of death? No, they weren’t afraid of anything, even their sense of pity was blunted. Blown to pieces … squashed at … skulls, bones … entire schools buried under the ground. Classes of children. Sitting there, doing their lessons. They all disappeared under the ground, just like that. But there was something else the boys remembered and told me about: the rich wine cellars they dug up, the fine cognac and wine they drank. They joked: ‘It would be good if somewhere else got zapped too.’ Only it had to be a warm place, where grapes grow and they make good wine. Are they sane, then? Are they really right in the head?

‘He’s dead, but I still hate him.’ That’s what he wrote to me recently. After five years. What happened out there? He doesn’t say anything. All I know is that boy – his name was Yura – boasted that in Afghanistan he’d earned lots of cheques for the Beriozka hard-currency shops. But afterwards it turned out that he’d served in Ethiopia, as a warrant officer. He had lied about Afghanistan.

At the trial it was only the lawyer who said we were trying a sick man. He said the accused wasn’t a criminal, he was unwell. He needed treatment. But back then, that’s seven years ago, there wasn’t any truth about Afghanistan yet. They called them all ‘heroes’, ‘internationalist soldiers’. But my son was a murderer … Because he did here what they did out there. What did they give them all medals and decorations for out there? Why did they only judge him and not the ones who sent him there? Who taught him to kill? I didn’t teach him that … [She loses control and shouts.]

He killed a man with my kitchen axe … And in the morning he brought it back and put it in the cupboard. Like an ordinary spoon or fork.

I envy a mother whose son came back with no legs. What if he does hate her when he gets drunk? If he hates the whole world? What if he does go for her like a wild beast? She buys him prostitutes, so that he won’t go insane … She was his lover herself once, because he was clambering on to the balcony and wanted to throw himself off the tenth floor. I’d do anything. I envy all the mothers, even those whose sons are lying in their graves. I’d sit by the little mound and feel happy. I’d bring flowers.

Can you hear the dogs barking? They’re running after me. I can hear them …

Taken from Svetlana Alexievich’s Boys in Zinc, published as a Penguin Modern Classic.