It was the autumn of 1939 when Bohdan came home with a frown. I remembered that day vividly for he never looked so sullen upon his return from the studio. He’d always open the door, humming to himself, filling our house with the smell of his sweat. Every day, like a ritual, I’d reach out to him if the curtains were closed. The market beyond our window competed with the silence of our gazes, but I couldn’t hear it once he appeared in front of me, and smiled.
I knew immediately that Bohdan had awful news that day, and sat up. There was a flyer clutched in his hand, crumbled and muddied. That wretched thing would end up tearing us apart, and that was probably why he held it so close to his chest. I stared at it, the vague shape of the letters spelling out WAR. I stood up to embrace him. He hugged me back, melting and then solidifying into my arms. The beginning of dread started creeping up my spine, and suddenly, I didn’t have hopeful words to offer to him, no matter how distressed he was.
He was the first one to pull away, pushing the paper against my chest like it was burning him. I took it and read the words of the government. ALL MEN, 18 AND ABOVE, ARE REQUIRED TO REGISTER FOR SERVICE. There was a clause about protecting the mother nation and doing your duty to the country which fed you. Something about pride. A buzzing in my head. Nothing in my sight but my shaking hands, until he squeezed them, plucking the flyer out of my fists and letting it flutter to the floor. Crinkling of the paper in the wind.
“You cannot go,” was the first thing I managed to say.
He looked up at me, and that was when it struck me, as it often did, how young he really was. Barely into his twenties. Thick coffee hair with blond streaks. Skin pale, eyes bright with the flush of youth, of success. A prodigal dancer, slim and lean, beautifully, not ruthfully, muscled. To become the greatest contemporary dancer the world had seen. Gentle. A good person. The world hadn’t been able to pollute him with its dire selfishness, and I would be damned to allow that to happen while I lived.
“I am a man, too,” he replied gravely. Already taking on the role of a dutiful citizen, willing to sacrifice himself for his nation. His naivety was endearing for the most part, but that day it made me sick to my stomach. The thought of that man killing another soul not only repulsed me but also terrified me. I took his hand in mine, wondering if one day there would be blood on it, instead of a trophy.
“Milos,” he urged, “We will go together.”
“That is not why I--” I stopped abruptly, turning my face away, overcome with the implications of the war awaiting us. The future of Bohdan, which was of more value than mine ever was. When we first started seeing each other, I had told him that I would kill a thousand times to keep him safe, and three years later it seemed that God asked me to follow through with my claim. After all, He knew it was borne of love, not violence.
“Milos,” Bohdan said softly, pressing his head to my chest instead. His hand grasped mine, “I don’t want to do this either. No one does. But I will be by your side throughout all of it.”
“I will not let you go.”
“I will find a way out for you.”
Bohdan was silent for a while, “It is impossible for us to evade the government. They will come for us if we don’t go to them. They’ll punish us for being War Resistors or even for conspiring against the--”
“Impossible for us, not for you.”
He shook his head in disbelief, “What do you mean? I’m not leaving you.”
“You’re an upcoming star. You have a visa, and you don’t possess citizenship here. If we plan this well you’ll be able to leave the country in time--”
“I said I’m not leaving you-- I--”
I held him close to me as I laid us down on the bed. A creak muted the sound of a deep breath. Every minute of my life I was reminded of how much more Bohdan deserved, how I was counting on him to make a fortune for himself as I realized that no matter how much I tried, I could not. I was a lumberjack with no talents of my own, no future. A perfect pawn for the government to use in their useless wars. But not my Bohdan. He was destined for greatness.
I wrapped myself around him as he shrunk into himself, for even the thought of leaving me hurt him as much as it hurt me. He looked up at me, but I shook my head at him and he knew, he knew there was no use in arguing with me about anything right then. He would try again tomorrow, and the day after, but all we both wanted at that moment was some semblance of the peace we had found comfort in over the years. As he finally fell asleep and I watched him until the cursed sun rose again, I realized that the peace had been shattered the minute he brought that deplorable paper into our home, and we were lying among shards of glass, waiting to be hurt.
I am attempting to light a damp cigarette when Sam taps my helmet, and the sound echoes off its walls and into my ears, making me wince. My head is already ringing from all the explosions and the yelling, and then the crying. These few hours are the only ones I have to be by myself in a near-silent world, and I try not to move too much. If my rifle clatters against the stones or the dirt around me shifts, I will remember where I am.
Sam, however, seems hell-bent on providing me with regular reality checks, and that is just what friendship has become in war. I open my eyes. As he plops down beside me, I watch the bandage around his waist develop a few bright red spots. I continue to glare at him and he simply waves away my concern, “I wrote to my mother last night,” his hand comes to rest on paper folded in his pocket, “I heard they’ll be posting the letters the day after tomorrow. What ’bout you?”
I reach into one of the many layers I wear and pull out the letter I wrote to Bohdan last week, handing it over to him.
Sam is the only person who knows about Bohdan, for he is a peculiar man. Stout, friendly, and a little too open-minded for these times. “For years women were told they are incapable of work,” he was arguing passionately the other day, and such views did earn him his share of jibes, “But the moment we need them to, they go to factories and make bombs. And they are able-- where is the logic in forcing women out of careers on the basis of--” He is loyal, outgoing even in horrific times like these, and that’s what drew me to him. Promise me you’ll have a companion, Bohdan had begged me, promise me you’ll talk to someone when things get bad, just to remind yourself of everything that’s waiting for you back home.
Sam glances around as he tentatively unfolds the letter. A man has passed out beside us, and the other is barely conscious; he already looks like a carcass. Such sights aren’t uncommon in our legion; we are underfed and overworked. Rations have fallen significantly with the progression of the war. Pieces of cardboard have begun to appear in the thick, stone-like loaves of bread that are divided among us, and all the vegetables are spoiled by the time we swallow them down quietly. One of the things that reassure me the most about Sam, aside from his tolerance, is his sense of privacy, not just for himself but for others, so when he angles the paper away from the group of soldiers on our right, I relax into my place, and look away.
March 12, 1940
Every day it gets easier to stay separated from you, for I am constantly drifting away from myself. I do not know who I am anymore. For 20 hours a day, I am the man no one loves. I am a machine. I run, I dodge, I yell, I pull the trigger. I do not know the names of all the men I killed. If I did, I’d carve them into my skin. I do not feel the same, and that only scares me because if I’m ever able to come back, how will you accept me again? I was deserving of your presence when I wasn’t covered in all this filth. But now, all I am is filth.
The only time I am Milos is when I think of you, when I write to you. So tell me, love, how are you? I miss you. I miss you dearly. Do not be alarmed at the teardrops on this page. It is a good sign that I can still cry, after everything. It has been nearly a year, yet I haven’t forgotten the smell of your hair or the color of your eyes. Your voice lives in my head, and you speak to me when I can’t get up. I want you to know, despite it all, I am not bitter about my situation. I would be if you were next to me right now.
Every minute of my life I am grateful that you’re safe, you’re far from this, you’re too good for this. When I can’t sleep at night and all I hear are the bombs, I think of the beautiful veranda you wrote to me about. The one surrounded by flowers, the one you dance in. I know you so well that that image is as good as any memory I have of you. It’s my food, my energy, my soul. Keep me alive, please. Keep dancing, keep laughing, keep writing to me. That is the only way I can continue to live.
After reading it a couple of times, Sam hands it back to me silently. We both sit there, staring at the collapsed concrete in front of us, iron beams sticking out like the gnarled fingers of someone trapped under their weight.
“I have never heard you speak that much,” Sam starts slowly, “And this is the first time you showed me anything you wrote to him-- your lover. Why?”
I manage to light the cigarette. Once I am halfway done with it, I give the rest to him. Better to finish it than wait for it to dry, because then it tastes worse than it already is.
“You’re a clever fellow,” Sam continues, pocketing the cigarette anyway, “To be able to send him far away from here.”
I nod, even though it was out of pure luck that I was able to do so. I found out the carpenter I often crossed paths with at work had a friend whose cousin lived in a small, unheard village up west, further out than the countryside itself. Its men had already left enthusiastically, volunteering to fight the war which hadn’t even reached their doorstep. It was out of the claws of the government for it was in the middle of nowhere, and aside from being cut off by hundreds of kilometers of barren land, a massive river also interrupted the path, it’s current too fast to be of any advantage. There were no other towns, no oil reserves, no mines. Resource-less land. Closed off. Worthless. The perfect place to send Bohdan to.
“We’ll disguise you as a woman,” I had told Bohdan, “And send you to live there till the war’s over. I’ve already arranged transport with an acquaintance. You’ll be leaving next week, Thursday.”
“Are you--” he had scowled, “--insane? I’m not some puppy of yours that you can simply send wherever you feel fit. I will do what I am required to do--”
“You are required to listen to me, just this once,” I remember pleading at his outraged expression, do not misunderstand me now, “Which one do you pride more in: your duty to your country or your duty to your lover?” Bohdan’s shoulders had dropped in defeat, and he whispered my name.
“Bohdan… listen to me. War is sold to men as a way of… proving their manhood. Honor, duty, responsibility… all of it is a front. It means nothing when you’re holding a gun against someone else’s temple, being forced to take away someone else’s family from them. If that’s what you owe the state, you owe them a place in hell. Do you understand?” His head fell, and I could tell he was feeling ashamed of himself, of the lack of thought he’d given it. It wasn’t his fault; he was vulnerable, young, susceptible to ideas, especially ones of such nature.
“A woman, you said?”
I had pulled him closer, “That is the only way out for you, is it not? You’ll be able to settle in with no risk of getting conscripted.” Bohdan had started to twist his ring up and down his finger, something he did only when he was deeply agitated. We weren’t married by law, but we lived together and held ourselves in that regard. We exchanged rings last year; I sold a piece of my parents’ land for the gold, and I still remember the look on his face when he found out. Grateful and guilty. Was there a word for that feeling? There should be; he often wore that expression. “For all your talk about how admirable I am,” he once said, “You’re the one who takes care of me the most.”
“Do you think I can still pass for a woman?” He had asked quietly.
Bohdan had always been a small, demure child. He never enjoyed brawling around with his friends, neither did he take a particular liking towards any sport. Puberty didn’t make him as tall as them, and by the time they were all young men, he was the only one who hadn’t naturally broadened. He was incredibly strong, but he was lean and graceful. His entire face was feminine: slim cheekbones, delicate eyes, lips that stood out. As if the way he looked or his tender disposition wasn’t bad enough for him back then, he also found that his talent lay in dancing. He was bullied, belittled, and sometimes beaten for it. Teased about ‘being a girl.’ He was stripped of his masculinity before he even understood what the difference between a boy and a girl was.
“For years,” he’d told me, “For years I struggled with myself. My body was a foreign, unacceptable thing. I remember standing in front of the mirror for hours, trying to understand why I was so-- so slight. Why no one called me to play with them anymore, why I was told I could be a girl and it wouldn’t make a difference. My father used to tell me not to worry, that once I became thirteen, I’d shoot up into the man he was-- the perfect man. But I never became anything like him, and he died with the regret of not being a good enough father to me.”
I had held his face in my hands, passionately driven to drill the truth into his head, “He’s ignorant for thinking that way. You’re the perfect man. You’re kind, caring. Selfless, nurturing-- And when you dance it makes the whole crowd stop and watch. You don’t even have to say a word to move people. Who is that powerful in our times, tell me? Is there anyone else like you in this world?”
Needless to say, Bohdan had developed a hatred towards himself. His body made him uncomfortable, and he tried to hide it under layers of thick clothing. He tried raising his voice and following the mannerisms of other kids until he realized they were brutes. He forced himself to attend soccer practice to satisfy his father. He even tried to give up dance after his mother passed away; she was the one who’d taught him.
Bohdan also found himself again, but the subject remained a sensitive spot.
“You’re beautiful, love; you haven’t been like everyone else, and you won’t be. But that doesn’t mean you pass for a woman. I know,” I had continued, “that this is hard for you. To be asked to blend in as a woman, when that’s what you’ve run from all your life. But today it will save your life, do you hear me?”
Sam touches my shoulder, “When this war ends, will you take me to meet him?” I look at him, surprised. He sits back, staring up at the dusty sky; morning is approaching, and the men around us have begun to rouse, like corpses rising from a dead earth, “When I read your letter… that is the first time I’ve felt something from you. I wonder what you’re like around him. Maybe you’re a completely different person. I want to know.”
The most wonderful thing about Bohdan loving me is that he doesn’t change who I am, he brings out who I am, I want to respond.
“I am the same,” is all I say, and close my eyes again.
Bohdan’s father passed away a year after his mother, ill of tuberculosis. He was an educated man involved in trade, and naturally left his fortune to his only child despite how much he detested him. It was not that he was simply complacent; he, indeed, did try to find another young man in his circles worthy of his wealth, but they were all either too greedy, too boring, or too foreign. He knew his son was none of those things, and it was of that virtue that he agreed to leave his property as the law intended.
Bohdan was, of course, quite surprised at such a turn of events. He had cried at his father’s bedside and knelt at his grave. He had mourned him as appropriately as a child would mourn their parents. Yet he hadn’t expected his father to behave like a father, especially in death.
It is not to say that Bohdan was uneducated; he held a respectable degree, was offered numerous jobs which he turned down for the sole reason of disinterest-- something unheard of in our time. Even the wealthiest of the upper class had to work in the business they inherited, but he had no such obligations as everyone in his family was dead and far from influencing. While his father’s soul sat chained in heaven, he knew what he wanted to do, and a veil was lifted from his eyes. He proceeded to use most of the inheritance to open his very own theatre.
It was easy to assume that such a feat was not only impossible but also crushing. But Bohdan was no fool; he knew when to invest, and why. It was only after he’d attained recognition by dancing on the streets and on various theatrical stages that he decided to take his talent into his own hands. He was blessed with a fruitful start: money to buy out an old building and have it renovated, choreographies from the times when his mother was alive, time to practice, both dance and business, for he was unemployed. He was a man, and a man hardly ever danced professionally, especially with the level of skill and charm Bohdan possessed. He’s wealthy, you’d say, and he’s a man who dances. Surely such a setup calls for no hardships when it comes to publicity and fame, for everyone will be intrigued. But even privileged people need vision, I’d say.
All kinds of people bought tickets and wandered in; some repulsed by the idea, some curious, some in need of inspiration, and some for leisure. Married men, the curious sort that would hang about in menageries and bars at night, women of all ages, some as young as sixteen and some as old as sixty, whole families with their little, excited children. The people who entered were as well as caprice, but when they opened their eyes to Bohdan’s movements they were transformed into an untouched painting. As he danced, Bohdan painted us all with his body till not a breath was out of place.
Bohdan’s theatre, B&M Dancing Company, was named after us. I protested at first, for we weren’t even married back then, and I was frequently haunted by the thought that Bohdan would see my uselessness and leave me. If so, I didn’t want his legacy tainted by my name, the name of a man he loved no longer. But none of this moved Bohdan. “The future is infinite, infinitely unknown, so I will not bother arguing with you on that. However, I am starting the company right now, and you are one of the pillars on which I am to erect it. You encouraged me to take this up, you showed me that I am allowed to consider myself worthy. You fought the people who spoke ill of my ambition, you protected me when I danced in the festivals. You built my stage with your bare hands--”
“To be fair, I wasn’t the only one working on that--”
Bohdan laughed. He was the only one who made me feel like I was funny, “You are my equal. And this theatre is no exception. Without you it would not stand. Without us. So please, let me name it after you too. It is the least I can do.”
If it was a matter of will, I would have spent every waking hour in that place. I would have attended every single performance of his, even if it meant crouching in the aisle and hiding about in the shadows. I didn’t need those soft, velvet seats or that grand, open view. I could be a mile away from Bohdan, and I would still watch him forever, even if he was a sliver of smoke on the horizon. He made me so happy that I entrusted my life to him. Even if he did nothing for me, I’d spend it by his side without a word. Back then, I wouldn’t have imagined wanting to kill myself while he was with me. Back then, I didn’t believe that saviors couldn’t save everyone, but, naturally, the future changes everything. That is it’s only function.
In the beginning Bohdan held two shows every alternate day, one in the afternoon and one in the evening, and as he became more sought after, he dropped it to four shows per week. He was far from greedy. He needed time to rest, to train with the new choreographer he’d hired, and manage the finances. I’d try my best to help around whenever I could; I’d set up the props, check the stage for any loose planks, fix the wiring of the spotlights if they flickered. I took it upon myself to be in charge of all the odd jobs, for my actual skill set was limited.
It was only when the times of war approached that the business was gravely affected, and we had to close down for a while. Bohdan convinced me to find a cheaper place than the one we’d moved into recently, too.
“It’s alright with me,” he said, crossing his arms and nodding when we’d gone to examine it, “If it is with you, I think we should move in.” At first I wanted to protest, for the ceiling was too low, the room was too cramped and one could hear the droning chitchat of people passing by. Almost immediately, I was ashamed. Bohdan lifted me out of poverty, gave me a place among him. To think I used to sleep with the fear of the roof leaking onto my clothes. I should have been ready to follow him right back into poverty, yet I was thinking like I actually deserved better.
He noticed I was troubled, “You don’t want to. That’s okay, we’ll find somewhere else--”
“Will you be comfortable? In a place like this?”
He looked up at me, “Not at first, no. But we can’t afford to blow money anymore--” Because what I earn is close to nothing, I thought, “--especially since we’ll need our savings more than ever. I know I’ll manage. Besides, if you’re with me, do I really need anything else?”
“I’m just a body, I’m not somewhere you can live.”
He laughed (I was funny, I have got to be funny) putting his arms around me and pressing his face to my shoulder, “You are the very definition of a home.”
It is hard to hide in a trench all day with dirt festering in my wound. When the ground above me rumbles with the thunder of army tanks, loose bits of stone and clay topple down, and by the time the sky is bruised again, I am sitting knee deep mud. The hours have been long, and I haven’t eaten or drank anything in days, but what I know for sure is that the only thing I will be able to recall from this day is the burning pain in my leg.
I want to scream, scream so loud that the mountains shake and collapse on me, bringing their serenity to me when I can’t go to them. But even this feeling is temporary, and it is taken from me. It occurs to me how anticlimactic the whole situation is, for after registering the worst of pains I have nothing left to do but watch the soil for worms, maybe even some insects (of which I find none). It is the only time I feel death, surrounding me like the steep walls of the trench, and at this point it doesn’t even feel all that different from life.
I am not able to recall why I didn’t die there. It is as though I laboured for a gift which was refused to me at the very last moment; for what reason, I do not know. I become acutely aware of the moment a rope is flung down, slapping my back, nearly two days after I’d been injured. A man whose name I will never learn gestures for me to climb; my country’s flag almost disappears under the layers of grime coating his uniform, just like mine. I think of moving my hands to grasp the rope, but I just sit there, slumped against the earth, wondering where my leg begins and ends. When I wake up again, it is in a make-shift bed a week later, and my leg is gone, a stump in its place. I finally have my answer.
I am genuinely pained over the loss of my limb. There is air where I feel there would be a leg, and the will to move produces nothing. It is discerning to me, especially since the only comfort I’ve known is the fact that my body is the one thing that couldn’t be taken from me. It is no extension, nothing earned. Not money, not a house, not gold, not even a promise. It is just what it is-- something I am born in. But now even that is undone, and what am I left with?
I stare at the stump for hours, unmoving, lost. I desperately grapple at any memory of my leg-- how was it shaped? Were there as many cuts on it as there are on my good leg? Had it trembled in its last days, or had it been heavy as a log? What did it feel like; did my legs even feel like anything? Do my arms, or any other part of me? And where is it after being separated from me; is it lying in a pile of dead bodies, complete dead bodies, or is it pairing up with someone else’s severed parts?
I can’t answer any of my questions. Every thread of speculation leads to a giant, confused ball of yarn that I can’t undo with all the thought in the world. I watch my lack of a leg for so long that I stop seeing it completely. More than its lack, I begin to feel my emptiness. I lost my spirit a long time ago, so what is a bunch of flesh in front of that? Just a poor imitation.
I realize I’m not feeling loss, I am acknowledging it. This thread, unlike the rest I’d been chasing, is all it took for me to hang myself. I stop thinking about the air at all, and everything makes sense again. Besides, I don’t even want to get out of the hospital bed. Men with two legs walk, but what does a man with one leg and no soul do in this world?
“At least you’re alive,” The doctor tells me upon seeing my distant expression.
“Praise the fucking Lord,” I reply.
September 1, 1940
I got your last letter a while ago, and I’m sorry for responding so late but a situation came up and it kept me away. You mentioned a puppy? I’d really appreciate a puppy right now. Anything cheerful, really. Yes, don’t worry, Sam and I are still close. He’s cheerful too, I suppose, but soldiers are no match for baby animals. It fills me with warmth to know that you’ve settled in just fine, and that you’re much more comfortable in your disguise than you used to be. No, that is not a bad thing and yes, it doesn’t make you any less of a man.
I, too, have noticed that my letters are coming undone by the months. I vaguely recall writing poetic paragraphs, and now I’ve become more matter of fact. You see, this distance is no longer the dramatic separation of lovers which proves how steadyfast their love is, and which swells their innate capacity to love and desire and appreciate one another. We are past that, really. This distance is… the boulder of reality crushing me. It’s inescapable; it’s something even enemies shouldn’t be unfortunate enough to have, for enmity would also fade. I am no writer, and so how I write does not reflect on how I feel about you, please understand this. I am just indefinitely tired. The path I’m on started with our goodbye, but it doesn’t really have an end.
I try not to think about how pointless everything around me is. I don’t think I have any grand purpose in life, but surely there’s more to existence than this. Surely we were not put on this earth to suffer? Why would God have given us Nature if we were? Why would I have ever met you? To increase the terms of my suffering? But again, what’s the point in that? There are so many things I realize I don’t understand. Life was much simpler when I thought it wasn’t. In hindsight, my only job was earning for us (how poorly I did) and keeping you happy (how I excelled, or so you tell me). It all seems so mediocre now. A day’s worth of hard, good-earned labour, followed by talking with you all night and trying to hold you while you insist on dancing on the bed. Such a big life, reduced to one picture of you in my locket and a hundred of kilometers of hell between us. It saddens me-- no, it maddens me, to no end.
I can sense that you’re worried sick about me, and I know that even though I spare you all the details (all I want is for you to be happy, or at least be ignorant of anything that could hurt you) you wake up often at night, drenched in sweat and writhing out of the memory of a nightmare. I can imagine it, too. Don’t conjure my pain by yourself, love, there is enough of it present in the world already. If only anyone else understood what I was going through-- but then again, everyone here is going through the same thing. Individuality and collective suffering go hand in hand, it seems. I am lonely, and of course I wish to show you what I’m going through. One day you’ll see for yourself, maybe. But till that day I will protect you from what plagues me. It is only right.
Something terrible has happened, and it will stay with me forever. There is nothing I can do about it. I don’t even know if I will be discharged as a consequence, but maybe I can think of it as a price I paid to come home soon. Such a deception would certainly make it easier for me to bear my state well. Also, never again say that you feel guilty for getting the easy way out. I told you, and I’ll tell you a million times again, I’d rather die than have you here with me right now. Write to me as soon as you can, and call me a hypocrite if it pleases you. I love you.
The B&M Dancing Company steadily earned its reputation, and by 1937 it started to attract an audience of influence. It was an amusing sight: a stream of common folks taking their place in the theatre, and the few businessmen standing out almost awkwardly, with their strict suits and placid ties. Bohdan wasn’t interested in flaunting his rising social status, and never cared to make available backstage passes for extra revenue. Bohdan’s theatre was the only place where the artist was the company, and it was quick to show.
Such humility resulted in inadvertent fame, as it was in this world, and many columnists grew to entertain the people’s growing curiosity. Reporters, whether in disguise or outrightly demanding, would scramble to catch a moment with Bohdan, maybe in the evenings when we were locking up for the night, or right after the show when the lights came back on. They’d cover his shows regularly if nothing else. Bohdan only attended appointments he deemed of value, and was highly critical in nature, as he was with nearly everything. Meticulous, in control. Composed. He wasn’t just a contemporary dancer, his life was the dance itself, and it guided him well.
Bohdan always insisted on my presence in meetings like that. At first, I was confused, and stood in the corner of the room with my arms crossed, assuming the role of a bodyguard. Bohdan had laughed and called me over, making me sit beside him. One such person of authority he agreed to meet with in advance was Agata Novák, a prominent investor at the time. I believe she went missing once the war was announced, and her body was found in a shoe factory, stabbed and drained, seven months later. In her lifetime, she played a huge hand in the success of quite a few performance art theatres, and, at first, presented a deal around supplying B&M with established dancers in order to boost sales and publicity further.
The moment she suggested so, I concluded that she was thoughtless. By then, everyone knew that Bohdan was not an ambitious man. It was not about the money, the fame. It was not about expansion. It was about making a place for himself in the world. That was all.
Bohdan politely declined. She sat back for a while, contemplating, and then offered to buy a healthy amount of shares. Once again, he turned her down without interest, much less a bargain. Instead of seeming baffled, she just smiled at him, “You’re a young man of great talent. All that remains to be asked is: what is it that you’re looking for?”
Bohdan smiled back, “I do not wish to offend you, but what I want cannot be given to me by even the best of businesswomen.”
“I shall ask anyway, out of curiosity.”
“An international stage.”
“An international stage for a male dancer,” she mused, the corner of her mouth upturned. If one remained unabashed by their prejudices, they were either stupid or believed in change. They spoke for a while even after that, and I barely followed, incurious. “That’s a vice of yours,” Bohdan had observed, “You’re smart but you just don’t care to say anything.” I asked, “Why’s that a vice? I’m just fine.” Bohdan had frowned, but said nothing.
While Novák and him exchanged business cards (she asked for mine too, clearly having assumed I was the manager), it became apparent to me that he genuinely enjoyed her company, but I never saw her again. A year and a half later Bohdan was approached by none other than Boston Smith, the talented mentor of a brilliant American dance academy. Bohdan and I were almost going to get tickets to the land of opportunities, but the war broke out soon after, and that was that.
November 20, 1940
The only good part about communication being reduced to letter-writing is that I can choose to not answer some of your questions. All I am choosing to say right now is that I’m breathing and resting a lot. These words are constructed to console, but I know you’ve seen right through them. Breathing doesn’t mean ‘well.’ Resting doesn’t equate to recovering. I’m not saying it to deceive you.
I have no life-threatening condition, no disease eating up my days. I am, as they all say, absolutely fine. I could have been worse, they say. I could have watched my family be murdered, my sister be raped, my friends be shackled. I could have been forced out of my home with nothing but the clothes on me. I could have died on the frontlines somewhere, covered in the heaps of rubble, never to be found again. There’s still a chance my body will get a grave, they say. More so, there’s a chance I might leave this place alive.
How many lies I am told, Bohdan. Every day I live is a lie. If I am fine, then what explains the deep, unending fatigue I feel? Lifting this pen feels like such a burden that I am choosing to omit half of what I want to tell you. I am acutely aware of it. What explains the fact that I can hardly sleep anymore? What explains the headache which never leaves, the random tremors which shake my body? When was the last time I felt joy, when was the last time I looked forward to something? I am truly, truly dead, Bo. You cannot convince me otherwise. You tell me to imagine your hand in mine? I can’t. I can’t anymore. I can’t feel a thing, I can’t I can’t I can’t.
I pity Sam. He has his own share of shit to deal with, but he’s always trying to do so along with me, like I’m a baby he’s wrestling his life with. The poor man has too much pride to let go of a friend he promised to accompany. Some nights I beg him to leave me alone, I try to convince him that he can’t waste his time on me or else he’ll end up worse than I am. But he is immovable. When all hope is lost, your name finally escapes his tongue. I tell him to shut up, I cannot bear it. I cannot handle it anymore. Your name is heavy on his lips, desperate. Like it is on mine. Maybe he’s in love with you too. I revealed your name to him. He knows you’re a genius dancer, he’s come to your shows. To think I might have seen him before but my eyes moved right over him, when now he’s the only person I can look at. I tell him to leave me be. I prefer silence to memories. I prefer anything to memories, they hurt me more than the things that hurt me.
Today, I have decided: I cease to exist. The only thing I have left is my mind, and I will not allow it to cleave either. From this day onwards, the only time I will wake myself up is when I am to write to you. You are the one thing in my life not worth abandoning, and such belief will protect me too. Someday you will understand what I mean.
Are you allowed to laugh while I’m absolutely wretched, you asked? Yes. That has always been my goal. At least one thing is going well.
January 28, 1941
Sam died seven hours ago. Five bullets through his body. I’ve attached a few of his things with this letter; there is no place for them here. I want to return them to his mother myself someday. But if I also die, mail them to her at least. Her address is also with his things, scribbled on a piece of tissue, I believe.
You’d think war is about hardships. It is not. It is about longing. It’s easy to explain away the disaster. We do it for our country, to protect ourselves. Yes. But coming back to the makeshift tents, or even the dug-outs… that’s when you are really hit. People cry, awfully quietly, like those sounds don’t even deserve to be born in a place dominated by thunderous bombing. They clutch pictures of their families. That is how I saw a baby for the first time in a long time. They try to take themselves away. They talk to each other about all that they miss. Sometimes they talk about mundane things like the condition of their shoes and the piss-poor food. Some even find laughter by themselves, and I can see their souls clinging to each other’s warmth desperately. There’s infinite longing for life, packed into every corner of this bleak place. It makes me sick.
Sam’s dead, I’m dead, and now you’re the only one left. I am sorry for worrying you, but there is nothing else I have to say anymore. You begged me to keep writing to you no matter what, and so that is all I’m doing. As for Sam… I’m searching for words to say about him. But again, there are none.
February 16, 1941
I miss Sam. I miss his stupid arguments and his fake laughter. Every morning I find myself waiting outside the latrines, waiting for him as I always did. That man had too many friends, Bohdan. He was almost never on time; he’d be caught up in morning greetings, small conversations, trivial jeers. He was affectionately fond of his rifle, calling it the door between his life and death, and cleaned it every evening with this dirty cloth which I am currently staring at.
I wonder why he decided to spend most time with me when he clearly had more people interested in him. I was a shitty friend. I could have responded to his jokes or patted his shoulder when he was tense. I could have asked him about who he was before he became a soldier, why he never spoke of a wife. He always stuck to me, but I was so cold to him. No, you told me I’m not cold, I’m… subdued. A little more indifferent than most people. Whatever I am, I should have found a way to pay back all his kindness. I kept eating it up without even stopping to think if I deserved it or not. I didn’t. Say what you will, but I didn’t fucking deserve Sam and I treated him poorly anyway.
I hate myself. I keep complaining about what the war did to me but… maybe I’ve always been like this. Maybe I’ve always been bitter about my circumstance, always been so deeply unhappy that it hurts. I’ve definitely always been indifferent. Maybe I’ve always been a monster too, and the war just gave me a way to channel myself. I hate killing but I do it anyway. I hate living but I do it anyway. The guilt of not being a good friend-- forget a good friend, I was barely a friend to him. He might as well have been speaking to a wall. I told him that once. All he responded with was, “You’re a warm wall,” but that doesn’t make a lot of sense. He was aloof, so I’m not surprised.
The guilt chokes me, it’s so hard to breathe. He spent his last days with me, of all people. All those days, wasted. What was the last thing I said to him? I can’t remember, it was so long ago. But he always spoke to me and it hurts. It hurts so bad I can’t even comprehend it. I fucked up, Bo. I fucked up. I fucked up and now Sam’s gone. What did I give him? Nothing. He deserved better, and I knew it, but I still… Didn’t do a thing for him. How is it that I have the privilege of being with you, when Sam had no one to love him as greatly as you love me? How is it that he knew more of my happy days than I know of his, when I hardly even spoke? I feel horrible, I am horrible. He wanted to meet you, you know? He recognized how much you mean to me. He was the only person who knew, and understood, and I don’t even know anything important about him. I should have asked, should have treated his words like gifts. Now, they’re dust and I can’t find anything among them.
May 30, 1941
End me now before I take any more lives. The lives I take have taken as many lives as I have. We are all just unwilling brutes now. We are all the same. War is the only place where one is a bad guy for killing bad guys. It’s monster versus monster. Pathetic. Nothing to win, or lose. No way to win, or lose. Where are the villains every story promises? Where are the heroes to save us? Where is God? Where are you? I do miss you, you know. Don’t cry now; I know how much you already have.
October 25, 1941
I wish I had spoken more the last time I wrote to you. Everything is getting worse. You can practically see the German camp a mile away. They’re advancing too fast and we can’t hold these lines much longer. Food is close to non-existent, and rumors are that they’re pouring poison and oil into the river so by the time it reaches us it’s undrinkable. There’s a man of science among our ranks, and he says that as the river is running, all bad forms will be washed away, but who will believe one man’s word over a hundred men’s fear? Needless to say, the mail is the last thing on anyone’s mind. I’m so sorry, but I only have this postcard right now, I found it under Sam’s old bunk, and there’s only so much I can write, so I chose to write about what’s going on. The rest hasn’t changed… I love you, I’m sorry. I’ll try to think of you.
I’m going to make this quick, I’m in a hurry and this is the last town I’ll come across for a while. I didn’t get your previous letter. Our camp fell to the Germans and we were taken to Colditz about six months ago. Rumors were that Colditz was for ‘high-risk’ prisoners, so maybe it was a mistake. I guess it doesn’t really matter, does it? I can’t reveal much, this might be intercepted, but a couple of guys and I escaped, and we’re on our way to Switzerland.
I won’t be able to hear back from you, but I’ll pray that you got my letter. There’s one more thing: Colditz used to be a sanatorium before it became a fortress, and the room in which I was imprisoned had nail marks all over the floor. Incredibly deep, like an animal’s. One floorboard was loose, and I discovered a beat-up doll under it. I’ve seen a lot, but the idea of a child in that place gives me nightmares whenever I’m able to sleep. For the first time in years, I’m allowing myself to look forward to forgetting. Afterall, if all goes well I’ll be coming to you soon. Maybe you’re still waiting for me.
By 1942, the tide of war started to turn. Americans emerged victorious in the Battle of Midway, and the Germans were further pushed to defeat at Stalingrad. Those couple of months proved fruitful for me too, for I had made my way across Switzerland, a neutral territory, with little resistance. The only reason why the other two soldiers had involved an invalid in their escape plan was because of their friendship with Sam; there was not a man who didn’t owe Sam something. “You were his brother,” Adam explained roughly to me, “He would never forgive me for leaving you to rot.”
Jan grabbed me and shoved me against the wall. He had always been hotheaded, so it barely caught me by surprise. I lifted my face to his.
“Give us one reason why we should take you with us,” he had snarled in my face. He was hoping to get me to admit I was useless, and insist that they go without me. What a good man was expected to do.
I couldn’t remember the last time I was required to speak, and suddenly I was grateful, “I stole a map of Leipzig from the German shit supervising us, and I can navigate using the sky.”
Escaping was the quickest part, full of adrenaline and intense focus. Once the fight for life wears out, and months of a journey lies in front of us, the real strain becomes apparent. We travel by foot all day, and sleep for a few hours at night. Their attention is on me even as I hobble on a stick far behind them. They are wondering when I’ll complain, when I’ll give up. When I’ll become the excuse they need to take breaks more often, and slow their pace. I do no such thing, and we all continue dredging on. The biggest problem isn’t even physical to me. I have too much time to think, too little space in my mind, and for the first time in my life I am aware of the dread hanging over me instead of bubbling up inside. I can’t feel it but I know it’s there, and nothing is more terrifying than that.
It took a few days for the full force of my situation to hit me: I had escaped the Germans, and I am on my way back. To Bohdan. I cry into my elbow. Adam must see the relief in my shoulders, and he squeezes them gently, almost kind enough. Sam, I think, Sam, I’m going home. I try to imagine how he’d react. He’d grin and pull me into a strong hug-- no, he’d cry too. He’d have been going home too, if he was with me right now.
Over two years of being separated, yet I still follow the path back to Bohdan as if it’s the only one to exist. My boundless faith in him hasn’t broken, but what about him? Does he even know I’m alive? Until now, I didn’t get to write to him after I was taken to Colditz. How many things have changed since then? Maybe he thinks I’m dead, and has already cried over my gravestone. He’s already mourned me and is in the painstaking process of letting me go. He’s sitting in some room alone somewhere, a wardrobe filled with women’s skirts, my letters littered all over the floor. He’s crying, I can feel it, I can feel it more than I’ve ever felt pain, and my knee buckles. He doesn’t know I’m coming back, he thinks I’m gone forever. He’s making peace with it. He’s using his dance to cope with his loss. He isn’t confiding in anyone. He’s collecting the ashes of his love like he would have wanted to collect mine. He’s looking for answers and I can feel his hands fumbling with the fabric of the world around me, rippling and oscillating-- close, then far, then close again. He’s somewhere out there, and he’s moved into a world without me.
I am reminded of how much I don’t deserve him, how I never have. The last few letters I wrote come vaguely to mind. I didn’t even respond to half of the things he said, I just went on and on about my own sorrows. My own problems. At some point I decided that he was the only one I could talk to, and so I should whenever I got the chance, but now I feel guilty for it. So what if he is the only one I can talk to? How could I have unloaded some things inside me so easily? Aren’t they meant to be my burden alone? Is it okay for me to accept Bohdan as my support? And how much did all that affect him? He doesn’t have reassurances like I do, he doesn’t know what it’s like to have your lover safe and sound like I do. And now, he knows what it’s like to lose his lover, and again, I do not.
I am sobbing into the grass, and Jan is crouching next to me, saying my name over and over again. I cannot stop the flow bursting from my chest, my mouth, my eyes. I am emptying faster than I ever have. I say Bohdan’s name once, as if to call for him, like he’ll lift his head from all those miles away, look in my direction, and smile. I say it again, and again, and again, until my name and his are being thrown into the air together, building a wall around me.
The day I see Bohdan again is on the twenty ninth of November, 1942. Adam, Jan and I parted ways a while back. It took me an extra three weeks to reach the obscure village I sent Bohdan to, so long ago. I am thin as a stick, and my beard outgrew me. I want to kill myself, but I wish to speak to Bohdan at least one more time. Some part of me is wishing for the sight of him to rekindle me, so that I would never feel like this again. I am closer to happiness than I ever was, but it doesn’t mean the same thing to me anymore. I don’t know if I want it, if it is something I can cherish anymore.
Bohdan is standing at the small train station with a bunch of other women. He isn’t dressed like a woman himself, and I wonder if he found the kind of companionship which could be trusted with his secret. They are engaged in a conversation, and Bohdan is smiling, but there is something so dull about it that it makes my heart drop. There is no charm in him, and the dark circles under his eyes weigh him down. He is even thinner than he was before, and the complexion of youth has disappeared almost completely from his face, leaving behind cold handsomeness. I am already crying as I stagger towards him, yelling his name. My throat hurts from the sudden strain.
His whole body jumps and his head snaps to the side, gaze immediately falling on me.
I see the tears falling as he runs towards me, I can see them before I feel his arms around me again.
“Milos,” he cries. We are on the ground, entangled, warm again, we are alone like we were in our house so many years ago, lying next to each other with mugs of coffee waiting on the bedside, his choreography’s music playing quietly in the background. My hands are on the bare skin of his back, and his are pressed against my chest, feeling my heart beat. His soft hair is like a cloud resting against my cheek, and his familiar smell releases me from the deepest prisons of my mind. The only thing different is that he is shaking violently, sobbing into my jacket, and I am doing the same. If he kisses me, I don’t register it. If there are eyes on us, I don’t register it. All I could feel was the world around me turning to gold, the warmth spreading in my limbs, lifting them above the dirty earth to which I am chained.
That was supposed to be my new beginning, not my peak.
Back then, in that singular moment which I allowed to define my existence, I genuinely believed that Bohdan would save me from myself.
I stay, but I realize now, a few years after our reunion, that I don’t have a place in this world, not as a killer, not as a lover, and certainly not as a person without humanity. I find myself thinking about Sam when I’m looking at the sky, when I’m rotting in a velvet seat, when I’m taking a smoke after sex. I think of him, sometimes, of his broad mouth and his understanding gaze. Of the little anecdotes he fed me to keep me alive. I wonder if he would have parted from me, or if he would have agreed to live with Bohdan and I. He had many friends, I remind myself, and a mother. He wouldn’t have stayed with me. But we would have written to each other. His letters would have been long, and mine would have been nearly empty, but that is the kind of love he accepted from me, and I from him. If only I had known his favorite book, or asked him about his childhood. If only I had comforted him in times of need. If only I had wiped his wounds and his sweaty brow. If only I hadn’t shot him through his head.
I saw it in his eyes, in the way his body bled from the enemies’ bullets. Little red gaping mouths, vomiting black. Kill me, he was saying to me, please. Don’t leave me here to die in agony. He didn’t have to say more. If only I had held his hand before, and apologized. If only I had told him how much I loved him.
I cannot ignore myself anymore. I cannot forget the horror. I cannot escape. Does Bohdan see it in my eyes too? Do my eyes look like Sam’s, in those final moments? Those final moments when he realized I was going to shoot him without hesitation?
I realize that, for the first time in my life, Bohdan isn’t enough. I need a Milos too.
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