Poetry

After Chernobyl

1 

A last look

at the Madonna and Child icon

nailed to the wall for more than fifty years

before she closed the door

Outside sticky white foam

clung to grass and trees

The old woman breathed bitter fumes

Her eyes watered   As a neighbour

with her goat tried to board the bus

she ran to help   The animal was torn

from them and tossed by the militia

into the road   Villagers watched   stunned

anxious about the animals

they were forced to leave behind

The old woman feared for her family

in the coming days   At the hospital

her son lay in a ward for the dying

She slept on pallets with others

camping on the basement floor

many with sweats and coughs   spitting

where listless children played and slept

Buckets against the wall the only sanitation

Each evening she thought on her icon

gathered the family around to pray

Stroking a small head   curls came away in her hand

2.

After watching her son die

she kissed her sick grandchildren

and their mother   then   spitting blood

her body ravaged by unexplored pains

the old woman left them

and went home to die

The long walk back   road pockmarked

weeds growing through the cracks

Thirsty   she sipped water from nearby streams

and spat   the metallic taste of old coins

lingering on her tongue

The village   desolate

no people   no animals   no birds

In the general store

dust everywhere   empty shelves

but mail sacks overflowing

In rooms at the back

plates unwashed   beds unmade

At her own gate   she sank

to her knees and kissed the ground

No-one would force her to leave again

Next day   covering her head

with a babushka   she slowly

climbed the winding iron stairs

to ring the church bells

until her ears buzzed with pain

and the ropes cut deep into her hands

She cried aloud through the deafening sound

cursing God for her loneliness

3.

 

One by one

they defied the militia

and came back   old women all

to live out their remaining days

On Sundays

they’d gather in the church

light candles and chant litanies

for their dead   each bearing

a stone within her heart

They shared food

taken from silent homes

ghost-haunted

found vodka

enough to help them laugh

over lost teeth and hair

and to dull the pain

But when it became too hard

to bear

they held each other

as life slipped away

The village   one vast sarcophagus 

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