The Black Snot of Memory
    15 May 2023

    The Black Snot of Memory

    A house should be in order, even if the house itself is no longer there

    “I don’t remember anything anymore,” an elderly woman points to the burned-out house. “I think the TV was over here. And this is where my husband and I used to sleep on the sofa. And over there was a rack with the coat where I forgot my wedding ring in the pocket. . .”

    We are dining under the vines with large emerald clusters of grapes. I almost comment about a good harvest but quickly stuff my mouth with fried tench, which the owner caught for us yesterday (more precisely, “a few tench and a small pike”). In Makariv, near Kyiv, there are many burned-out houses, so people from different parts of Ukraine and the world come here to help. But, to be honest, there is not much practical sense today. We shovel broken bricks with burnt plaster onto wheelbarrows and take them out to the pile, leaving a clean foundation. It is no preparation for the repairs that can be completed by the winter.

    I find springs from the sofa, then a melted transistor. “I found your TV,” I shout to the owners. They laugh. Despite everything, people here are generally in good humor. This is almost the only thing allowing them to calmly accept yet another refusal to their requests for a place, at least in a mobile home. Local authorities tell them they are not the only people in need. And they admit it—indeed, they are not the only ones; indeed, they still have the opportunity to live with friends; indeed, they are still alive.

    At the first attempt to comprehend this burnt and mutilated space, these oaks cut by shrapnel, the craters by the houses, and the ripe blackberries among the charred plastic cladding, I knock myself out of reality and shiver from sudden cold flashes. These older people’s entire building has become multicolored ash—even some bricks. Fused chunks of metal looking like rat kings lie in the place of cooking pots, waffle irons, and pans. There is melted glass here and there. . . Suddenly I feel embarrassed by a naive desire to help this woman with a forced smile find her wedding ring among this mottled ash. She is now quarreling with her husband in the vineyard. He says he is not hungry, but the woman argues that he hasn’t eaten anything today, so the man asks her to shout quieter, or else people may hear. 

    Walking towards us, the owner idly pushes the part of the wall that has left of their bathroom, and it falls so naturally as if it’s not supposed to be there. This smiling man wearing blue overalls has a cigarette and assures us he doesn’t regret anything here or miss any property, even his expensive German electric tools. But when he finds burnt jugs, cups, and saltshakers, he carefully places them on the foundation’s edge for some reason.

    “Please find me something to keep as a memory,” asks on the phone a former resident of a house on Lermontov Street in Irpin.

    This lady is now in Germany, and the volunteers are cleaning her Irpin apartment. One of the residents of this building, whose place escaped destruction, is managing the process. She says some locals who evacuated abroad have already visited their homes—they looked at their burned-out apartments, turned around, and went back. Volunteers would call them to check if they needed help, but these people would no longer answer the calls. But her own apartment is okay, except for the shell that broke a single glass and got stuck in her child’s bedroom wall.

    The woman on the phone says she did not have time to take anything, not even a cup or a glass, but she misses her home and wants to return soon. Removing the trash from her apartment, we notice that it is different from elsewhere because there is nothing left here—no remains of metal, no porcelain, not even a bathtub. From most of the neighbor apartments, the volunteers take out surviving bathroom fixtures and throw them out of the windows onto a pile of metal junk. They take out fragments of tiles that have even preserved their color. By the way, they also find many burnt but almost intact gas meters. But this woman’s apartment has nothing. After her words, everyone is frantically rummaging through piles of ashes, trying to identify at least something.

    Among the things found in other apartments are knight armor, laptops, cartridge cases, a box of pencil-like coals, boxes with gold jewelry, a box with money, a dildo, and clay sculptures of dinosaurs.

    Most often, these people tell us and, most importantly, themselves: the main thing is that they are still alive. After all, isn’t it?

    During the lunch break, I’m walking to the center of Irpin. There are tall pine trees and strange and magic light. At some point, I’m beginning to realize I haven’t noticed a single fence not damaged by shrapnel. The sun is shining through these shrapnel-riddled fences, tearing me out of reality again and transferring into a fairy tale. But then I notice that every third house in this wonderland has been fatally damaged—they have collapsed roofs and are sooty and war-torn.

    In a cafe in the center of Irpin, the barista is very welcoming to customers and makes some good coffee. Crowds of children in the park are shouting like crazy, fighting among themselves, and calling each other Putin. A middle-aged bearded man is painting the fence and dancing to loud techno. Many locals have already cleaned their homes, reglazed the windows, and re-covered the roofs. But in a residential complex at the intersection of Tolstoy and Lermontov streets, there is hardly anything that can be repaired.

    In the evening, doing nasal washing, I see that the snot is black.

    Everything these people loved and gave each other, everything they used for cooking and all the food they cooked, all their reasons for getting driving licenses—all of it has turned into ashes.

    In another Irpin private house, there are no owners. Half of the building survived, and another half was destroyed. Judging by the clothes and furniture, a child must have lived in each room. Each has a bookshelf with mostly children’s and educational books. Nothing is burned, but everything is covered with dust. There are three names and lots of numbers on the jambs of several doors: date and height, starting from 2012.

    Outside, a cherry tree has yielded sweet and firm fruit. I can’t stop eating them. Then I force myself to eat some more—let at least this cherry make some sense.

    There is another private house a few streets away. Among the volunteers is an English-speaking foreigner. The owner tries to explain to him what kvass is. Those who know English also explain, but the foreigner doesn’t understand how it is possible to make a drink from bread.

    Many roses have bloomed in the yard. Looking at her house with a collapsed roof, the owner’s wife laughs sarcastically and calls the Latin names of the rose species growing in her yard. And I immediately think: “These roses are a mockery of people.” But the lady says: “They are the only joy.”

    There are many girls among the volunteers. “Hold on a minute,” the lady tells them at the end of the shift, having remembered the roses she praised. She goes into the house (or what to call it, if there are only three walls?) and brings a pair of pruning shears. “You don’t have to!” everyone shouts. “At least for the girls,” the lady insists. The girls laugh and joke that it’s sexism. Then, on the bus, they break off the countless thorns. 

    My friend tells me about her father-in-law’s house, where the occupiers lived. Everything is intact, she says—they just scattered the clothes and left a mess. However, the owners do not want to return there—they just can’t. They can’t bring themselves to do it because of a tiny detail: the “guests” defecated on the bed.

    So, once again: everything is intact, there is hot water, a fridge, and a roof, and the place has been cleaned. But there are things that no chlorine will wash away and no wind will remove.

    I try to make sense of it somehow: why, what for, where does it come from? In a way—at a much lower level, of course—it may remind the greedy children deliberately licking all the caramels so that nobody else would want them, or dogs marking their territory, or dogs in the manger.

    To destroy for the sake of destroying? To destroy forever—in every sense?

    There are many such buildings—hopeless, lacking walls, or having cracks in bearing walls. They will never be anyone’s home and have been declared unfit for living. “What are we doing here?” I think to myself. Isn’t it a waste of effort? Because there are also houses here that can be rebuilt before the cold sets in. Isn’t it why we are here—to help survive this winter?

    “What are you planning to do next? When do you start to rebuild?” I ask the Makariv man in blue overalls who treated us fried tench. First, he looks at his feet and then at his wife, who is carrying a power strip from the neighbors. He inspects the yard—from the gate dented by a tank to the surviving apple tree—sighs and says he is too old to build again. The man does not believe he will be compensated for anything anytime soon.

    So why did he call us? The older man’s honest and simple answer is hard to recover from. “I just want to clean up,” he says.

    On the way back along the Zhytomyr highway, under broken overpasses and rebuilt bridges, past burnt and restored houses, I think about the woman who asked to find her something to keep as a memory. How will she look at her home when she returns? It’s just bare black walls and no memory. And the smell—not just burnt wood and plastic but the stench of roasted flesh. I wonder what words this woman will choose when she learns that we have found absolutely nothing whole in her apartment—not a single cup or plate. There won’t be even a burnt shard of crystal on her doorstep.

    Oh, memory, this strange and mysterious word, like all the terms well-established just yesterday. Memory?

    Memory is a melted transistor, a few tench and a small pike, a man in blue overalls, a coat with a wedding ring in the pocket, a burnt meter, knight armor, the voice of a lively woman from Germany, doorjambs with numbers, cherries no one can pick, the joy from roses—everything passing before our eyes and turning into a tangle of fused metal and glass objects. Do we really have to fuss over you like some crystal goblet, oh, memory? Or should we rather break you and grind you into dust? Burnt fields will be more fertile next year.

    Memory is black snot. Black snot every time—after cleaning up the burnt glass wool at a local cultural center or just a house where nothing was on fire, only the war popped in for a minute, knocked on the door, rushed into the house like a silly dog, turned it upside down, and ran away.

    I want to look for something positive—someday, after the victory, they will build new houses and even whole cities, the enemy will pay dearly, and so on.

    But there is something gone forever. Something one cannot return by any means. It has simply burned, turning into particles of ash in the nasopharynx. On the mucosa of your red nasopharynx are the memories of your child’s first step, the first night with a girl, the first successfully baked croissants, and the last conversation with your mother. In a random person’s nasopharynx, they are just a few specks of dust that yesterday used to be the content of someone’s life.

    Once, a moose calf wandered into the capital’s Obolon, where I lived. They explained in the news that, 30 years ago, there used to be a forest, and it was calling moose by some voice of not-so-old blood.

    What will be on the site of this man’s house who says he misses nothing but then picks up a melted saltshaker from the ashes and smiles?

    . . .And we only learn about the tail of the monster waiting outside the door. Because we are walking past the garage, and the woman says: “Ivan was lying over there. . .”

    A volunteer in a cafe tells us about his attending one of the exhumations. Seasoned military journalists of the world’s leading media stood by the pits. They readied their cameras and were about to start recording. And then suddenly, everyone started vomiting.

    They say that smells leave the strongest memories. And that smell is the only sense in hell. 

    Memory, oh, you foolish memory! The dirty mark of rapists and terrorists, the soul-devouring worm! With something like you, isn’t amnesia better?

    And it is something profound and uncontrollable. Memory is when you no longer remember what happened when, what lay where, and who was who to whom. It is that cold memory of subzero temperatures distinguishing “us” and “them.” That sacred memory when the mind is blank, but the last reflex remains: it must be clean at home—even if the home is no more.

    Дочитали до кінця! Що далі?

    Далі — невеличке прохання. Будувати медіа в Україні — справа нелегка. Вона вимагає особливого досвіду, знань і ресурсів. А літературний репортаж — це ще й один із найдорожчих жанрів журналістики. Тому ми потребуємо вашої підтримки.

    У нас немає інвесторів чи «дружніх політиків» — ми завжди були незалежними. Єдина залежність, яку хотілося б мати — залежність від освічених і небайдужих читачів. Запрошуємо вас приєднатися до нашої Спільноти.

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