The Keys to Non-existent Doors
One key in the set—with a flat round surface—is to the building entrance, another one is to the entryway, two more are to the apartment door, then there is a key fob, and one more key to God knows what. After all, I no longer remember which key opens which lock.
These are my Donetsk keys. I used to shift them from a bag to a backpack, then to a suitcase, and then to another bag. . . They traveled with me to frontline cities and abroad, and I could not say what doors they could open. Until one day, I lost the entire set.
“That’s it,” I repeated, over and over, having no other words and feeling my city was falling into a black pit and the abyss was swallowing up the hope that must have rested on these keys.
I have always believed in Ukrainian Donetsk, but there was no salvation from “That’s it,” and there was no one to shout for help. “Oh, God,” my husband said, who, on all other occasions, then and now, keeps saying: “Don’t panic, we’ll withstand.”
Oh, God. . . Please return them because how can I live without the keys that, as it happened, had been locking up my panic ever since 2014? Oh, God. . .
In the end, I found them: the keys were quietly lying on the sofa, where I was doing the habitual repacking. Shameless, they lay quietly but then crawled away and hid between the pillows.
All these eight years, looking for something in my bag where someone good can find salvation and someone bad their death, I used to come across them, and they responded with the Jedi’s “May the Force be with you.”
Since February 24, I don’t carry the Donetsk keys with me because my Kyiv keys have now become my strength and faith. At the end of March, I wanted to return the Donetsk keys to the bag—but I couldn’t.
We build no hierarchies of grief because we, as a community, have no right to do so. But every one of us is aware of the issue of comparability and incomparability of the prices others have paid and keep paying.
In March of our long February, we obtained other keys—to apartments and houses, the doors of which will never be opened because they no longer exist.
“Make sure you don’t lose the keys!” echoed mother’s voice in their heads as people grabbed them and fled their burning homes, getting out from under the rubble and falling walls and ceilings. Then, having taken one last look at the remains of their homes, they set out on a long journey into the unknown with the keys that seemed meaningless.
My keys can still return home yet they are not entitled to superiority, painful safekeeping, and worthwhile discovery.
Ukraine is now hundreds of thousands of palms with keys that seem useless, but there is no such force in the world that could force one to throw them in the trash.
Sets of keys—long and short, heavy and light, with small metal surfaces—burn our hands and holes in our grab-and-go bags and pop up to open someone else’s door, but they can’t.
And these are not our first keys deprived of meaning by Muscovy. They are not the first keys that will never open anything because there is nothing and often no one left. The keys from the past have been waiting for us—in attics, mass graves, or somewhere in Siberia. We did not know we could let them speak. Or rather, we only now know how difficult it is to cope with them, how difficult it is to forget and to speak up. How difficult it is to just look at them and how impossible it is to get rid of them. It’s not a fact that time heals people. But it’s a fact that it doesn’t cure keys.
In Vienna, on Servitengasse street, a glass case set into the ground reveals 462 keys of the Jews who lived and worked on that street but were deported, shot, or tortured in concentration camps. If one bends down a little, through the transparent and seemingly fragile glass, they can read the owners’ names on the nametags.
When it becomes unbearable for many of us to carry these keys in our bags, keep them in a drawer, or hide them elsewhere away from ourselves (but we will certainly know where they are), and we cannot afford to throw them away or forget about them, then we also will have to preserve them somehow.
Perhaps it will be domes of glass—fragile and transparent—over our keys, and one will have to bend down a little, look closely, and recognize their neighbors, street names, and house or apartment numbers. Perhaps it will be glass castles over our pain—in every city and town—where one can always place their keys: long and short, to the cylinder, cruciform, and deadbolt locks. Perhaps it will be a fragile and transparent ceiling through which one can see what hurts as much as incurable burns.
I don’t know what is possible. I can’t finish the sentences in which I’m trying to find a place for storing our shared grief. I am not sure if glass castles in all cities and towns of Ukraine will add us strength. But we must do something with our keys that will keep opening non-existent doors to the world where there is no forgetting.