Poems by Eugenia Hepworth Petty

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Soldiers' Stories

by Eugenia Hepworth Petty

From Canary Summer 2010

Eugenia lives in the Aptos Creek watershed, just a few minutes' walk up the hill from the creek and the Monterey Bay/Pacific Ocean into which it flows.

–Upon reading excerpts in Voices from Chernobyl
by Svetlana Alexievich

Arkadi told me how at seventeen, when he was a young conscript in the Soviet Army, he escaped a wild boar by climbing a tower of rock in the Afghan countryside. Three of his comrades huddled in a jeep, praying to no God in particular as they were Soviet boys; worshipers of the collective.

Only boys, truly, relegated to this war, then that disaster. After coming back from Afghanistan, Turganev was sent to Chernobyl—to wash the streets; overturn the gardens. He was there for six months. When he got home he threw all the clothes he’d worn there down the trash chute, except for his cap, which he gave to his little son, Vasil. Playing as a soldier, as a boy, Vasil wore that cap often. Two years later he had a tumor in his brain.

Who knew that death could be so beautiful? People poured onto balconies and stood in the black dust wondering at the ethereal fire that was a kind of shining.

The invisibility of it: until animals ran crazy in abandoned streets. The coxcombs of roosters turned from red to black. Milk curdled into powder.

In hospital number six, soldiers carried bedpans, wiped floors, changed bedding. The orderlies on staff refused. They demanded protective clothing. Where did they get those soldiers? We didn’t ask. Lyudmilla, a fireman’s wife recalls, tells of how she lifted her bandaged hands to her husband’s swollen mouth, removed pieces of his lungs, his liver, two days before he died, as he choked on his internal organs. Documents were signed by wives and mothers, surrendering the bodies of their loved ones to the State. They buried them in sealed zinc caskets, under cement tiles.

Arkadi ran his hand over a faded map, showing me the direction the wind took on that late day in April. When I made it back from Afghanistan, I knew I would live, he said. For those men it was the opposite: it killed them only after they got home

This poem was created by sandwiching the experiences of my friend Arkadi around the stories from Chernobyl survivors interviewed by Ms. Alexeivich.

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