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0 Comments | Jun 17, 2011

Excerpt from Alone in the Light

Excerpt from Alone in the Light

Imagine going to class one morning—October 18, 1994, to be specific—and returning to your dormitory room to find your roommates gathered around the television watching reports of a surprise air assault on your home town.

These people—your roommates, your friends—are Russians, and they laugh and joke about how that will teach those Chechen terrorist bastards. That will teach them some respect. And only after you have stood silently in the doorway for a minute or so do they turn and see you, their Chechen friend. And how quiet the room becomes at that awkward moment. But imagine if they had known what town you actually came from? Imagine if, as they silently left your room, they had known that that was your old street the cameras were showing on the television—not that they would have recognized it, of course, pulverized into rubble by two solid hours of rocket and bomb attacks.

And even as you reach for the telephone to make the call home, you know there will be no answer, no chance in the world of phone service amid such chaos. And it is a two-day trip by train just to get within five miles of Argun, because that is as close as the train can get. So you spend another day walking the rest of the way, through
the eerily quiet empty streets. And it takes quite a lot of doing to even find your street, with all of the visual landmarks now turned to dust. Th ere aren’t even any colors to go by—everything covered with a homogeneous coating of gray. The sky is gray too, with the combination of overcast clouds and wind-blown dust. You wonder
if the rain will come as you pick your way down the shattered, deserted street to where your family’s apartment building stood only days before.

But it isn’t entirely deserted. There are a few locals milling about. They are gray like the afternoon sky, and they move like automatons, climbing amongst the wrecked homes and shops, searching for anything familiar. There is a man you think you recognize from your childhood—an old man who had lived with his wife in the apartment two floors below yours. And as you approach the remains of the building, the old man seems to follow you with his eyes. Even from fifty feet away, you can see that tears have worn rivulets in the dust on his face. He looks down at you from atop the twenty-foot pile of rubble.

“I went out for vegetables,” he says quietly, mechanically. “She wanted tomatoes and a cabbage to make stew.” He motions incongruously to the crumpled bag of vegetables at his feet, two-day-old evidence of his successful foray.

Still uncomprehending, you look up at the old man and ask, “What was the time?”

“Seven in the morning,” he replies. “Everyone was still at home, except for a few early risers like me.”

“And have the emergency services people come? The police? The fire brigade?” you ask as the implications of the enormous concrete mound begin to take hold. You climb the pile to where he is sitting. “Where have they taken the casualties?”

Now within ten feet of his ancient dust-covered face, you are shocked by his sudden outburst of laughter. “Taken? TAKEN? Why, my boy, no one has taken them anywhere. They are here with us as we speak.” He shivers with the cold and looks briefly up to the sky.

And it is at this point that the crushing truth of his words begins to entwine itself around your mind. Nearly one hundred people lived in this six-story apartment block. One of them was the old man’s wife. And one of them was your mother. And another, your father. And two more were your grandparents who came to live with the family around the time you left to go to college in Moscow. And one more was your sister Katerina, whose eleventh birthday card you had, only one week earlier, dropped into your dormitory mailbox.

And you do not remember quite what happens once the full weight of the calamity descends. Perhaps you sit quietly beside the old man for hours in the growing evening cold, watching the gray sky turn black, Or perhaps, ignoring the blood on the hands of the old man, you frantically try to dig, grasping futilely at the massive concrete shards stacked two stories high around you, vowing to do something horrific to someone you can neither see nor name. Most probably you do a bit of both, but then accept the abject hopelessness of the destruction, and the cold of the night, and the slowly swirling dust in the street.

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