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An Annual Visitation: First Place for Biography Prose, Southwest Writers

In October, Ukraine appears in my rear-view mirror.  Driving across the South Dakota prairie alone, I have come to expect this annual visitation.  The country’s outline does not emerge near the anniversary of my father’s death.  He died on the last day of June.  It is disconnected from his birth under an Aquarius sun during the darkest part of winter. Instead, this country, my father’s country, materializes after the sun begins to wither and the blue sky is so crisp that my teeth ache.

Only when the corn stalks have disappeared under the plow, and the air is motionless do I detect a foreign prairie behind me, a land where men once guided themselves across quiet oceans by starlight like Mariners.  Under vast Ukrainian skies, bison and antelope, wild horses, and prairie hawks still roam innocently across this country’s unmarked land.  The bones of my ancestors lie buried in this black earth, deep within a prairie my father once walked across with faith before the war came.

The sudden trills of red-winged blackbirds and the sharp squawks of geese do not startle me because the film stills of Ukraine rolling by me are not part of this century.  I do not see the effects of Chernobyl on the bruised land or drink the poisoned water.  I cannot picture the pinched faces of young girls with little to believe in but the familiar strains of pop music and the hands of their boyfriends between their thighs.  The empty grocery store shelves and the derelict buildings of a once-grand and fortuitous country do not cross my view.  I see my father’s Ukraine, instead.

Ukrainian bandura player's song of sorrowThe sharp smell of wood smoke filtering through my open car window reassigns me to another century.  I see Baroque churches with Greek domes and mosaic Virgins pieced together from crimson, turquoise, and emerald fragments.  Ox-drawn carts stumble across muddy roads leading into dark forests.  I see braided kolach bread wreathed in candles on Christmas Eve and brightly colored Easter eggs in April.  I see my father on the back of a horse, his boots dug deep in the stirrups, or is it me in the pale green sweater and t-shirt, my cold hands holding the worn leather reins, my cheeks pink like a pair of apples, that I see?

Behind me, there are wandering minstrels carrying banduras.  I see a poet, who was once a serf, argue angrily with Fate as the train banishes him into a frozen exile, pencil, and paper taken from his hands.  I sit at a wooden table next to an uncle with the taste of resistance and borscht on his chapped lips in my horizontal, moving picture.  My father is at the table too, arguing with his brother – the dissident – pleading tearfully against the path of hunger and violence Fate will lay down for both of them.  I see great famine and peasants scorching their own houses, burning the last sheaths of grain before the day’s arrests begin.  This country is my father’s Ukraine:  a cold, sepia-toned landscape only occasionally marked by firelight, like the months of winter.

I have never traveled to Ukraine.  I have not seen how the beech trees cling together in dense forests or how the linden, oak, and pine branches knot together like a spider’s web above the swamps and meadows.  On the streets of Kyiv, my Eastern European features have not dissolved into the faces that have not changed for centuries, the ones that belong to lives steeped in cheap Vodka, blunt cigarettes, and unrelenting poverty.  Sitting on the docks in Odessa, sipping Turkish coffee, and smoking in the chilly morning air has not been part of my life.  Nor have I stood with my father by the Black Sea mesmerized by the ocean-bound freighters crushed together like downtown office buildings.

Serhij Sochocky, Brody, UkraineWould I even feel a connection to Ukraine if I knew where my father stood in the photograph I have of him, amidst bare trees, smiling?  Would I understand what he saw as we stood together on the first farmland he owned after the war?  This land, saturated with his memory and the typography of the Ukrainian steppe, I stood wanting the mosquitoes to quit feasting on my fat ten-year-old body.

Still, I know this country that stubbornly appears in my rear-view mirror each year:  the same blood running through my veins gallops through men and women living amidst this fractured landscape. Though the false borders of politics have crumbled, history continues to keep me apart from my Ukrainian family born after the war, the family I will never meet. Natural geography and aberrant boundaries made by others separated my father from his family and country. Ocean.  Land.  Politics.  Much more than landscape and ocean separates us from each other now.  War.  History.  Language.  Revolution.  Disintegration.  How would I find my family?  Would I only exact unhappiness and confusion on the survivors, walking up the path like the prodigal daughter returning, the unwelcome ghost of my father and my uncle, murdered by the Nazis long ago, carved into my cheekbones?  Stones unturned, souls at rest, perhaps.

Some days, I think I have fallen from the stars into a prairie landscape I do not recognize.  There are no landmarks, no tree branches with their palms open to the heavens to remind me of the familiar.  It is as if God pointed to a particular spot on the earth and declared, “There.  This place is where this child’s life must begin, underneath a maple tree watching the leaves.”  My first memory.

I am bold enough to argue.  You have made a mistake, I say, pointing to the middle of a torn book.  Where are the missing pages describing the characters in my history that have come and gone?  I was a fool to believe in my father’s silence about Ukraine and in the reasons why he kept it as if it were an ancient tradition.  Maybe I was wrong to think he stayed silent because he did not have faith that words would ever be enough, that language would always be lacking somehow, that his sentences would dry up like autumn leaves, the way history starts to fade on the pages when a book gathers dust, unread.  Perhaps I believed in his silence more than I believed in his death.  I am half Ukrainian because my father was Ukrainian because of the spelling of my last name, yet, I do not know what this means, what it meant to him.

Like my father’s love of the folktale about the evil serpent crushing his chains and stalking the earth if too few pysanky remain unpainted at Easter, I, too, am driven to argue against the circle of Fate that others try to lay down for me.  I hang on to the things I cannot hold in my red heart and live as my father did as if I am about to move.  This restlessness is not merely the legacy my father bequeathed to me.  I believe the urge to roam was implanted in those with Eastern European blood rushing through their veins centuries ago.  I claim this as my inheritance:  the souls of Ukrainians have been sad for centuries, I think, and now this loneliness is mine to manage — this hunger.

Ukraine, July 1998. I nearly went to Ukraine.  In fact, my American passport has an approved Visa stamp allowing me entry. The Cyrillic letters were written in likely black detail, my entry point, my Visa classification, and the person’s name stamping my passport, yet, the script is incomprehensible to me.  Only the proposed dates of entry and required exit are clear.

Ukrainian grandparentsMy pre-packaged travel itinerary included a daily breakfast, transportation by train and private car, and stays at respectable hotels in Kyiv, Odesa, and Yalta.  Finally, I would see Swallow’s Nest Castle on the Black Sea, the site where Stalin managed to convince Roosevelt and Churchill that he was to be trusted to bring Hitler to his knees and that his murderous rampage was secondary.  I would look skyward into the Crimean Mountains that shield the Baltic coast from Arctic winds and spend an afternoon on the Dnieper River, the river that my father crossed when he escaped from the Soviet prisoner-of-war camp.  I would explore the catacombs where the Partisans hid during the war; I learned that Ukraine is a landscape that has never been neutral.

After my guided travel was complete, I added ten more days of a tour through the Polish countryside.  I planned to go to L’viv, where my father attended medical school before the Soviets arrested him, and Krakov, where every corner of the cobble-stoned streets still carries its history lesson with plaques commemorating both resistance and abdication.  I would go to Brody, where my father was born.  The entire trip was to cost $4,000.  I planned to use some of my graduate school money and earn it back after returning and writing the hefty deposit check.

I did not go to Ukraine.

During a tearful conversation with my mother, she convinced me that spending that kind of money was folly since I had only been operating my independent consulting business for a couple of years.

“But I can make up the work when I return. The business has always been a means to end. Now that I am only working the legislative session during the first six months, I have more time to write. The goal is writing Mom, not the business,” I pleaded.

The narrow afternoon sunlight settled between my nervous fingers as I traced patterns in the tablecloth that covered my desk strewn with pieces of my manuscript.  My mother and I had already had one of our circular conversations a few months ago about whether I should defer my graduation a year to spend more time on the manuscript.  There had been many tears that night as well, I thought, and though I was thirty-two years old, I found myself still begging my mother to approve my decisions.  In the end, I “won” the debate about graduation, but the “victory” felt hollow, and peculiar remorse took root.  I was tired.  We were both exhausted.  Was it because she and I only had each other that I needed her approval?  Did I still believe my mother still harbored regret about coming to America with my father and leaving her home in England?  Was it my guilt over her decision to stay in this country after his death?

“Why can’t I go my way, Mom,” my voice slowly rising.  “My father left me with nothing.  Not a damn thing.  He never talked about anything.  The war.  His family.  Ukraine.  Nothing.  Half of my life is a blank page.  Frankly, I think he feared the prospect of even talking into a tape recorder, but I also do not conclude that he was part of the walking wounded the way others describe survivors like him.  He had humor, grace, compassion, and faith, but he worked so hard that he ran out of time, and now his entire story is gone.

I have been back to England with you as an adult and so many times as a child, Mom.  I have that part of my life that you left behind and, in the end, sacrificed for me. I take risks, and yes, I suffer the consequences sometimes, but the stakes are worth it to me, I thought. Why can’t I have just a tiny sliver of my father’s life now!”

“Your father wanted to protect you from what he went through, honey.  How do you think I feel?  He never told me anything either. I was married to the man for fourteen years.  You will go to Ukraine one day, honey, but I don’t think you should spend all that money right now.”

In the end, I relented and turned against my instinct, against my desire.  True, I had no financial plan aside from using my loan money to finance the trip, but I had always been resourceful.  When I called the travel company, I pleaded for my $2,000 deposit and my passport back, citing an unforeseen family crisis in my life.  That summer, instead of going to Ukraine, I sat in my apartment working on a grant my clients had hired me to write.

 

Years have passed since I did not go to Ukraine.  I still want and need to travel to this country, but I do not want to go to Ukraine to be closer to the details of my father’s war that scorched this landscape.  Nor do I want to go because I still carry grief over his death.  I have long since learned to manage this sorrow.  If I go, I will not find his Ukraine I see in my rear-view mirror.  I do not have any illusions of a family homecoming.  I am not looking for my own Albion.  My desire to go to Ukraine has less to do with the absence of my father’s narrative.  I do not need the facts anymore; I can survive on the legends.

When I go to Ukraine, I will go because there is something intrinsically familiar about the soul of this country for me.  Years ago, when I walked into a Polish art gallery in Santa Fe, New Mexico, the owner immediately spoke to me in Polish.  Even in America, I have the look of Eastern Europe on my skin and the mannerisms in my step.   I have inherited this country’s obsessions, its melancholy and dogged approach to life, its evolving sense of identity, borne from centuries of occupation, and its commitment to beauty, myth, and story.

When I go to Ukraine, I will go because my father did not live to see the Berlin Wall crumble and the Soviet Union disintegrate into fragile republics.  I will see an independent country and listen to the echoes of the Orange Revolution in the streets.   The tragedy of history echoes when the past we should have witnessed happens without us. Both the dead and the living are so far away from it.  I will bear witness to the sights and sounds, smells, and the touch of my father’s landscape and feed the uneducated part of my soul.

I will go for him because he could never return to his home after the war without risking imprisonment or death.  I will go to Ukraine for my father because the act of remembering is a holy one.

 

The last professional photograph taken of my father accompanies an article published posthumously in the University of South Dakota Medical School newsletter.  In the picture, he does not smile in keeping with his reluctance to be photographed.  Seated at his desk in a white doctor’s coat and stethoscope, the hospital window behind him looks out towards spring.

In the corresponding article, the author described how my father reached into his top desk drawer and pulled out a handful of postcards from all over the world.  Israel.  Germany.  Japan.  Poland.  Australia.  France.  Yugoslavia.  Each one was a request for a reprint of research papers he had written and presented worldwide.  The reporter asked my father if international travel came easier because of his working knowledge of seven languages. He responded that while it takes him a little time to pick up a language again, it comes back effortlessly once he walks amongst the people.

At the end of the commentary, when asked if he enjoyed his work at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, my father exclaimed, “I am happy now.  I am happier now than any time.”  A well-educated man and a man of many languages, he could have set his life down in any country, in any landscape, but instead, he found his way back to a landscape most like the one he carried in his heart.

Dr. Serhij Sochocky, circa 1980

The last photo was taken of Dr. Serhij Sochocky before his death.

The path from the villages of Ukraine to the American prairie is threadbare.  The faint trail follows the line of the northernmost railroads, snaking its way across the edges of North Dakota.  After the war, my father’s best friend, Bohdan, a man he met in the prisoner-of-war camps, followed another well-worn path of history to Canada, one that others who came before him had beaten down with muddy boots and hopeful souls.  My father did not go down this trail.  Instead, he set his life down in South Dakota on a prairie with no history of others like him coming before.  Perhaps the prospect of living in proximity to others sharing his particular kind of loss unnerved him.  My father’s motivations and the circumstances of his choices are like the details of his life during the war – ephemeral – like the moondust children believe fairies sprinkle over their fragile and unformed hearts in the night.

My knowledge of the history of South Dakota, the state my father chose to live out his life, in the end, is sketchy at best.  Sometimes I think that my understanding of this part of America consists of Custer, Crazy Horse, Mt. Rushmore, Wounded Knee, rose quartz, wild buffalo, the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, Wall Drug, and Laura Ingalls Wilder stories.

My command of the prairie is much better.  I know that there are fewer trees to change color and gauge the nearness of winter in the fall.  I recognize the movement of the horizon as it draws closer to the earth when the sun slouches lower and lower with each passing day.  I can predict when coveys of geese will begin to meet at a singular point in the scarlet and flaxen sky.  I understand that few street lamps glow on the prairie, only acres and acres of stars.  Sometimes, one loses its balance, falling to earth without emotion.  Is the same true in Ukraine?

When I was in grade school, my father bought several parcels of land in Saskatchewan. It made no difference to my father that the land was part of the Canadian prairie.  I inherited this land saturated with his memory and the typography of the Ukrainian steppe after my mother’s death eight years ago. I did not understand what my dad saw when we stood together on this land; all I wanted was for the mosquitoes to quit feasting on my plump ten-year-old body.

Land loved.  Land labored.  Land lost.  The spiritual and historical life of an entire nation revolves around Ukrainians’ intimate relationship with the earth.  For my father, Ukraine was a country driven by memory; for me, it is driven by history.

My father discovered his memory of the prairie after the war. He joined thousands of Ukrainians who had pulled the roots of their lives from one unforgiving landscape before setting their lives down in another halfway around the world.

His country tracks me like a panther, pursuing me each October, telling me it is time for me to come.

 

 

 

 

When history speaks

The first image streaming across my Facebook page is one I remember from family photo albums. My father stands at the nurse’s station at the Veteran Administration Hospital in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, making chicken scratch notes to a patient’s chart. A light glare interrupts the photo once more, yet the man in the photograph is unmistakably my father.

Voice from Ukraine

After all these years, why has history come calling? Who is the person making contact with me? How is a photograph I remember from my childhood in someone else’s possession halfway around the world?

I stare at the image, unable to pull my eyes away. Scrolling backward, I locate the haunting message.

“I write in the name of your cousin Yaroslava from Ukraine, your father, serhij niece.”

Still pondering the mysterious message, another photo filtered across my screen. My mother and I at Christmas in our tiny apartment at the Veterans Administration campus. The green shag carpet I once ran my toes through in summer, the line of Barbie dolls on the shelf of an end table, the squat artificial Christmas tree of all the years of my childhood, my mother.

I bite my lip, drawing a pinprick of blood, and reach for my cup of cold tea. Stunned, yes, but more curious than nervous, I wait for the next chapter of my history to materialize.

Absently, I click on an unrelated website link scanning the news headlines. For some reason staring at the stranger’s photographic evidence of my own life makes me feel like a voyeur.

Stones now turned, souls definitely not at rest.

This is your father

I stare at the truncated sentence and accompanying photo that has surfaced on my Facebook page. Five days before this morning’s Internet shocker, a similar message sans photo arrived in my inbox.

This is your father.

The light glare bursting from the photo’s left side manages to obscure the people’s faces in the image, yet, I see a hint of my father’s receding hairline and high cheekbones.

This is your father.

I re-read the message and read it once more. The name of my father’s niece rings true, but who is trying to contact me? Why now? Thirty-five years after his death? The dormancy of my father’s life became my truth years ago.

Internet scams abate, but so too do erroneous searches for lost family members, discarded affections, or friendships. Social media often fans the flames of loss, guilt, and isolation, seducing people into seeking out relationships that are best left dormant. Reunion fantasies imbue these searches luring lonely people to ignore the reasons behind a severed relationship. Stones unturned, souls at rest, perhaps?

I learned to write around the absence of half my family, half my history, treating the few photographs and stories (or myths), documents, and snatches of conversation I heard as a child as ‘family gospel.’ I revered the absences, resented those my father bequeathed me with his death, ignored each one, yet found comfort in their oddities. I claimed my isolation drinking in its potency like an addict.

Absence defined me. And now? What?

“I’m afraid I cannot see the faces because of the glare,” I type, my fingers striking the keyboard not with the confidence of a seasoned typist but like a novice hunting and pecking each letter. I wait.

The author claims to know the daughter of my father’s sister, Olga. Olga, the cherished sister of my father, fretted about listening to the BBC for any hint about her life behind the Iron Curtain. Long ago, strange photos of Olga’s little girls arrived without warning, too. Manila envelopes with stamps not from Ukraine but Maryland had the aura of contraband. These black and white photos of my Ukrainian aunt’s daughters brought tears to my father’s eyes.

History cannot be kept silent forever, but its emergence on a crisp, autumn Santa Fe day unsettles me.

Only ten minutes will pass before all that I have known, all that I have surmised and believed will evaporate into the mists of a once-forgotten history.

 

Serhij Sochocky, registration papers, Chief Medical Officer, Redgrave Park, England

A riddle I could never solve

Great grandfather, Greek Orthodox priestTiny morsels of my father’s life have always appeared without warning, a crumb here, a mystery unraveled there, only to be followed by a dead end, pieces that leave unanswered questions in their wake. The unwritten residue from which I built my account about my father’s life over the years came by accident – a weighted remark at the dinner table or a story surreptitiously overheard – shocking and unexpected.

From time to time, when I was tiny, I crawled out of bed and lay curled up on the floor of my bedroom, pressing my ear to the space between the door frame and the carpet, and waited. Waiting for what, I was never quite sure, but when wrinkled summer light bled stubbornly through the Venetian blinds of my room, I hoped that my nightly missions might produce clues about my father. My father hunted for his clues, too. Every evening, he sat crouched forward, fiddling with the knobs on the radio, searching for a report from behind something called the Iron Curtain. My father was a puppeteer trying to drive the gravel out of the foreign voices.

The walls in our tiny apartment were thin. I lay in bed with my ear pressed to the wall, straining to hear my mother turn into the living room from the hallway after she closed my bedroom door. When I thought it was safe, I climbed out of bed and padded across the bedroom floor. Once the sound of voices rumbling from my father’s radio and the chimes of their teacups on saucers seeped through the narrow opening, I knew I would not be discovered.

Some nights, when I did not make a discovery, I lay quietly, clutching my teddy bear before falling asleep on the floor. I have not made a discovery for several evenings, and this evening does not look promising.

Gingerly, I ease my coloring book off the bookshelf and hold my breath when the crayons spill out onto the white, worn carpet. I lay still for a minute until I convince myself my mother has not heard my accident.

My father has turned the radio off, and my parents are not talking. Another evening without a discovery, I sigh when I unexpectedly hear my father’s voice, low and distant.

“All of the soldiers were shot. Shot. Point blank. On the train. I overslept and missed the train. Pure luck. Luck and God. God kept me off that train. I, too, would have been killed if…,” my father’s voice fades.

Where was my father going on a train? What does my father mean by point-blank? I am glad that God kept my father off that train and that my father was so lucky.

“What happened after the ambush,” my mother asks my father in the gentle and soothing voice she has when I have skinned my knee.

“Ah…it was a long time ago. It does not matter. It does not matter anymore,” my father answers. I hear his chair flying back into the bookshelf and his footsteps moving quickly towards the kitchen. The click, click, click of my mother’s knitting needles fills the space.

The sun has finally gone down, and my toy wagon and dresser shapes have taken on scary forms. My eyes dart around the room. Is that a witch peaking out at me from behind my dresser? Is there a monster behind my toy wagon? If I can dash from the floor to my bed, I can be safe. I scamper to my bed and burrow down under the covers to hide from the monster I am sure is behind my toy wagon. I fall asleep dreaming of a train moving fast through dark forests…Serhij Sochocky with Polish soldiers, World War Two

…in my dream, it is frigid. The finely falling snow has made a damp halo of my father’s head. He is smoking. He glances at his watch before tossing his burning cigarette on the hard, gray ground. Dozens of men walk around my father, but I cannot see their noses or lips, eyes, or cheeks. My father does not notice these faceless men but boards the waiting train with them, the train steaming and snorting like an anxious horse. Why is he getting on the train? Doesn’t he know it isn’t safe? Wait, Daddy…no…do not get on the train. From the window, he presses his face to the glass as if searching for a distant glimpse of something familiar. He seems to look directly at me, but when I wave and cry, “Daddy!” he does not respond. The wheels grind sharply against the steel rails, and the train, once eager to lunge forward, now strains to move, creeping ahead with the sound of metal on metal. Wait. Wait. Don’t go, Daddy. Wait for the next train. This one is not safe. But my cries are too late…

Years after I fell asleep on the floor of my bedroom dreaming about this murderous train, I learned the actual context of this story. During the years Poland ruled western Ukraine, my father, a member of the Polish army, traveled from Lviv with hundreds of other soldiers to fight the Soviets after the invasion of eastern Poland but missed his train. Word soon filtered back to Lviv that the Soviet army had intercepted the train and murdered all the soldiers aboard before closing off the Eastern Front.

On my bedroom floor, I did not simply learn snippets of history. I also gathered stories like a small bird collecting discarded objects for its fragile nest.

I was always the family archaeologist. Beginning with the nugget about the train, over the years, I built my private inventory from fragments I collected:

      • a country called Ukraine that none of my family could visit;
      • a sister, my aunt, and her children, my cousins, whom my father could never contact directly living behind the Iron Curtain;
      • a brother murdered by the hand of a Nazi soldier for being a member of the anti-German resistance and left to die on the family farm;
      • soup my father made from stolen cabbages and grass in a string of prisoner-of-war camps;
      • a daring escape from a Soviet camp in the throes of a bitter winter;
      • the leather prayer book my father smuggled through multiple detentions;
      • a handful of gold rubles hidden deep within the base of a shaving stick, rubles my father had made into an exquisite bracelet for me;
      • photographs of prisoner-of-war camps in Rimini, Italy, and Redgrave Park, England.

Many years would pass before I told anyone about my inventory. At the time of my father’s death, even though my commitment to uncovering these stories had been unwavering for years, my inventory was painfully thin. My father was not unlike the country of his birth to me – a riddle I could never solve.

I understood that my father was not born in America but Ukraine and had lived in England before coming to South Dakota. Yet, my father’s Ukraine was never like my mother’s England to me. While England seemed like a jewel in the middle of a cold ocean, infused with brilliant light, Ukraine was dark and terrifying, a place I was never be allowed to visit. There was a weight connected to the country’s name – Ukraine – as if the entire landscape shouldered a devastating burden it could never discard.

Ukraine was consigned to my imagination, a place with dangerous forests and unfamiliar faces, a country where everyone was always hungry. There were no heirlooms from my father’s family on the bookshelves or the coffee table in our apartment. I never knew anything about any member of his family, by experience or by anecdote, only by fiction and myths I created.

An Omission

Only one photograph of my father and his sister together survived my father’s war. Olga sits with her legs curled beneath her like the English women in my mother’s photographs. She has a lovely, tiny dimple on her right cheek. The soft shadows of late afternoon cross her face and chest. She leans back against my father, reclining in a field of wildflowers beside a still river. Brother and sister look too contented for the photograph to have been taken during the war; it must have been taken some time during the early 1930s.

My father looks like a film star. A freshly pressed hat with a broad, curved brim like Humphrey Bogart wore conceals part of his young and handsome face. He does not smile but looks quite satisfied. My father and aunt are not alone, though. A man stands along the river banks with one hand on his hip, the other leaning on a walking stick in the deep background. He is wearing a hat, his face entirely obscured by the grainy image.

Serhij Sochocky with sister Olga, western Ukraine

Is this their brother, my dead uncle, or is this my selfish desire to believe?

The Ukrainian uncle I never knew was older than my father. This is the only physical detail about my uncle I know. I do not remember ever hearing my father refer to his brother by name as if the uttered syllables might burn his mouth. No photos of my uncle survived my father’s treacherous journey of survival through war-torn Europe. When I lay out my father’s family photographs, my uncle should have a blank space. He has always been a family myth.

If I could print my uncle’s image from a negative, he would be taller than my father with thin, chapped lips, tanned skin, and a lean and muscular build. He would have earnest, unrelenting eyes the color of fossilized amber, shaded by a sloping forehead with a wisp of sandy hair falling on his brow. If only the curve of his Slavic cheekbones were visible, one would presume the photograph is of a girl on the precipice of womanhood.

In my ethereal image, my uncle pulls his shoulders back, one hand in the pocket of his wool trousers. Suspenders with large, round buttons curve over his collarbones and cross his back—streaks of mud cake on his once-white shirt. The dampness of his sweat draws the material closer to his chest and arms. His rolled-up sleeves reach to his elbows. His boots, dulled by the earth and labor, are his favorite pair. Evidence of a careful repair on the left boot, a patch of leather taken from a new saddlebag, form a circle the size of his watch face.

My uncle holds a cigarette in his right hand, and his pouch of tobacco bulges from his shirt pocket. He stands beside the family’s team of workhorses, and the rusting plow he steers by hand is behind him. Though worn by sun and wind, the bridles are polished; the leather is a rich, dark chestnut. The bits glisten in the anemic sunlight. The sky sags, heavy with rain for the first time in days. The collars of the harness rest limply around the team’s thick necks. The edge of the plow’s scythe lies hidden underneath clods of parched earth.

My uncle looks directly into the camera. He does not smile, but his face is calm. His eyes look as if his mind wanders. Perhaps he is thinking about the field that he must finish plowing before the storms arrive. The earth is more brutal to turn over when it is parched and stale. Though he is only in his mid-thirties, worry lines cross his forehead like parallel railroad tracks. Around his mouth, a dimple in the shape of a horseshoe curve toward the square chin he inherited from his grandfather. Maybe my uncle knows that the German soldiers will find him.

If I turned on the light in the darkroom, the image would be so sharp it would hurt my eyes. The blacks would be dense and impenetrable, the whites crisp like fresh linen. There would be so many gray shades that it would take me days to count the tones in the pebbles and dirt alone. Each strand of loose hay, each wrinkle in his leather boots, each particle of perspiration above his sparse lips, is so animate, I am afraid that the man in my ghostly photograph stands next to me, my uncle’s sweet tobacco breath grazing the nape of my neck.

Looking closely at his face, I see the early growth of the next morning’s beard between the lines of his mouth. His translucent eyes are the color of the stone found along the Sea of Azov. I trace his knuckles, scratched and torn from the plow, and follow the lines of his cheekbones curving like the wings of a butterfly. I spy where his mother or his sister mended his trousers along the inside seam. I see my uncle, married to the land for which he would give his life, the tension of his soul, his struggle between hope and fear, joy and sorrow, darkness and light, before the image I will never hold vanishes before my eyes.

He is an omission.