There are books and films that stick with you long after you put them down, like the burn of whiskey in the throat after the alcohol has slipped into your stomach. Sometimes its the idea, sometimes its the writing. But occasionally, its the characters, so human in the most painful and honest manner that their mistakes, failings, and triumphs flutter through your mind as you go about your life, coloring everything in a spinning kaleidoscope of fractured humanity.

A few years back, a friend of mine was reading Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago. He showed me a character web he’d created, explaining the relations of the various people to one another. In this description, he mentioned a character in passing that struck me as so perfectly tragic that I read the entire novel solely because of this one sad minor figure.

The novel is set during the Russian Revolution and Civil War. When Yuri is captured by the Forest Brotherhood (a group of Red Partisans), he ends up living in a partisan camp for a portion of the story. At this camp he meets Pamphil, a man whose family lives in the camp with him. Pamphil is devoted to his wife and children, carving small animals for his children with his axe. However, he hears from a dying man (a man who has had his limbs amputated and tied to his back) that the Whites are planning a surprise attack. Fearing his family will be tortured by the Whites, Pamphil goes into his tent and kills his own family with the same axe he once used to carve their toys.

The astonishing thing was that he did not kill himself immediately afterward. What could he be thinking of? What could he look forward to? What intentions could he have, what plans? It was a clear case of insanity, and nothing could save him now.

At dawn, he walks out of the camp and into the surrounding woods, vanishing from the fight and the story.

The image of this shattered man, having murdered his family in what he considered an act of mercy, walking quietly into the forest, having to live with his deeds until the end of his days (whether that was a single day or many long years), has haunted me.


One unsecured tent flap slaps against the canvas side
Its arrhythmic snaps filling the pre-dawn air
And the wind is blowing swirls of snow inside
I should secure it
I let the loose rope slide between my fingers
Before dropping the hand to my side once more
The rope slithering through the air
Leaving faint red serpents on the tent’s wall

O God

Sleep or burn, my darling
Burn in the rays of this coming dawn
You understand, don’t you?
There were no other options
And I knew
I knew at his final gasp
The cry

O God

Your smile as I entered the tent
The warmth in your eyes- that is what I’ll remember
It was the same look you gave me
When I entered the room after our son was born
Brighter than the pale winter sun cresting the treetops
And the words for what was in my heart
Were hidden in the lamp’s shadows
I will remember your smile
That ember in your gaze, the soft curve of your shoulder
Not the spark of fear
Or the whimpered pleas as I did my duty
My duty, my love
You understand, don’t you?

O God

The light is turning to that smoky pink
And the forest is stirring, birdsong overlaying
That damned tent flapping
That damned wind howling
But the sound is so discordant that I want to block it out
To run from the sounds, hiding in a womb of silence
That same silence I stood in
You understand, don’t you?
The silence of your sleep, your salvation

O God

I cannot stay to see you slumber, my dear
Not now, not with the dawn illuminating your once-pale hair
Your once-pristine dress, the sharp angle of your twisted shoulder

O God

I turn, the first rays of the sun slicing into my burning eyes
O God
The crunch of the snow under my boots drowning out all other sound
O God
I will leave you to your sleep
O God
The forest seems so much darker than the camp
O God
I will find a place to weather the coming storm
O God
And dream of you
O God

Я тебя люблю
Ты понинаешь, да?