The experience of having been unable to articulate my feelings of loss—almost literally losing the language I needed to say it in—made it all the more unreal. I keep listening to Russian and I think what it is doing at the moment is melding the memory of the wordlessness of my loss with the later memory of learning to communicate again. I never went back and said, “You remember when Ksymcha died? That was completely devastating to me.” But I can now. I can in English, but it’s like I need that step in between, when I could have articulated it in Russian to the people who cared about me, but I never did.
The loss is no longer in a box. It is no longer wordless or invisible or even unreal, which is how it felt before now and still does. My sense of having language again gives me a little of another feeling: if I can speak, maybe I am real. Maybe my experience of the world matters, because it matters enough to be spoken about.
At the same time, my memories of Ksymcha make it easier to understand what has been going on in my mind in those mornings with C. Particularly that one day, when I suddenly felt like kissing her neck and then, of course, it reminded me of other things. It reminded me of girl-on-girl scenes, because that’s something I might have had to do.
Only I didn’t feel like kissing her neck for that reason. I felt like kissing it because I looked down and saw suddenly that it was whole and undamaged. Ksymcha hanged herself, and her neck was abraded and maybe broken from it. It was not the same neck as it had been. And I was helping C with her maths and saw suddenly it wasn’t like Ksymcha’s. She wasn’t dead. Her neck was okay, and I was just so glad. I had that thought in a very young kind of way, because the memories of Ksymcha are very young—they aren’t fully processed by my adult self, and they are connected most strongly with a sense of myself as I was at three or four years old, when kissing the girl who mothers you has a completely kind of meaning than it does when you are older and instead tutoring a teenage girl in maths.
The really positive thing that C has helped me with, it seems to me, is remind me that not everyone is dead. She triggers the memories of Ksymcha enough that she allows me to connect the past to the present and begin to see that the present is different.
That is the odd thing about trying to shove the past into the past without examining it: you can put it in the past, but you can never quite make sense of the present. You can’t quite see that the present is different or how it is different. The past and the present must be brought together to do that, and while you do that, the past can seem like the present for a while. It’s a stage though. It passes. You don’t stay in that place forever. But if you never do that, if you never let the past spill over into the present and maybe even risk overpowering the present, you never have the present at all. Not entirely, anyway. It remains a thing you can never understand.
There is this other thing.
When I found Ksymcha’s body, I touched it. I touched her leg, I think. It was cold. I think she had been dead for quite a few hours, but no one had happened to go looking for her until then, and so she was stone-dead-cold by then. It’s stunning, the coldness of a dead body that was once alive. I may have experienced it before: Stecia may have already died. Magda might have also. I touched one of their bodies and so when I touched Kymcha, I think I remembered that feeling of coldness along with the thought that I had caused it: although I couldn’t have caused Ksymcha’s death. I think I had that thought again, or was reminded of the thought so compellingly at least that it seemed to the truth about the present.
Whenever I touch C, I remember the shock of coldness of a dead body and it contrasts with her warmth. Other people are warm, but they don’t remind me of Ksymcha. The box remains closed and unexamined. I never get the chance to see that, although Ksymcha died, other people go on being alive. And when I touch them, they don’t die. I don’t have the miraculous power to kill people with my touch. I never did. They were already dead when I touched them, and that’s why they were cold. Their deaths had nothing to do with me, and were never my fault.
But C looks like Ksymcha. Almost exactly, except that Ksymcha had blue eyes.
And another thing.
The coldness of a dead body is such a stunning, horrific thing when you are a small child, that it doesn’t seem like something you can live past. I don’t know if it’s exactly painful as it is like an impossibly hard math problem—except you can’t set it aside, the way you can set aside your homework. It must be grappled with to go on with life, and I couldn’t. I couldn’t even say it out loud. There was no one to say it to. I could not say, “Ksymcha was cold. I touched her and she was cold.” I couldn’t ask anyone why she felt that way. There was no one to help me with the mystery of that. I was maybe four years old, and there was absolutely no one to help me understand the physiology of death. Dead people can no longer regulate their temperatures, and our bodies cool to something like room temperature, in the same way that a cup of tea does. There’s nothing magic about it. We are just mammals, and we spend our lives warming ourselves from the inside.
Anyway, thinking all this does a weird thing to me. It makes it all a bit more real—as though I have moved past that moment with the body, when it was cold and horrifying and incomprehensible, and maybe because of that it suddenly crosses my mind to think when I was growing up, my dad’s friend was a serial killer. He killed five of my friends.
There is this thing about extreme trauma that makes you seem, I think, a little like someone who just has strange ideas. As a teenager, I seemed to be morbidly fixated on death. Well, who wouldn’t be? I had lived through it. It wasn’t an obsession. It was something I had lived through, and I needed to understand it.
I do understand it better now, and it’s like returning a little to the land of the living again. It’s like coming away from where I was, in that room alone with a dead body hanging from the ceiling, into the kitchen where the girls took me and made me drink the worst tea I have ever had. Except for the tea they gave me after Nata died. That was very nearly undrinkable.