Every year he thought he was as thin as a man could get but the next year he woke up thinner. Now he knew the name of every rib. His eyes jutted far enough from his skull he thought he could see one orb with the other. The endless dryness of his tongue, how for decades it had been a fat animal and now it was small and black and useless, a worm inside a toothless cavern. When his last loneliness began he’d stopped speaking in sentences and now as he moved mutely through the forest it was only external sounds that broke the silence: the sound of last dogs and last birds, the sound of wind, the sound of creaking wood and straining metal and flapping fabric. The whispered threat of more snow falling, of winter forever.
Now he was awake again. Grief never ended but it faded, went ambient. He took what he wanted wherever he went. It wasn’t much. None of it was his but who was he stealing from. No we, no us, but still him and them. Same as it had ever been. The other people left lived in the day while he lived in the night. Or else he lived in the distance.
He didn’t covet what others had, where they were. He stayed where he was and everything he saw was his or close enough.
Chain-link and razor-wire fences ran around the perimeter of the exclusion zone, contained Chernobyl and Pripyat and the forest and all this was for the best. Those who wanted to be part of Ukraine could live outside the fence. Those who wanted to be part of Pripyat could live within. He had been a soldier once: that was how he had come to Pripyat the first time, to the plant. Years later he returned, arrived at the gate, subjected himself to questioning. He was done with Ukraine, he said. Ready to be apart, within. The first time they had given him a white robe and a white cap, a shovel to clean the dirt down below the melting reactor. The great heat everywhere, the awful unknown of the danger. The feeling in the darkness that anything might happen next, that this was the beginning of something new, a lasting unknown. When he came out from beneath the earth he had watched the others climb the building, cleaning the roof of the reactor. They had called these soldiers the storks but now all the storks were dead, the real and the named. Surely the earth and the dirt ate the birds too, when at last they grew tired of flying.
In Pripyat there waited ten thousand rooms he could sleep in but none of them were his. Not anymore. He walked the city streets on moonless nights but he did not have a home or else the forest was his home, the small caves in the forest where he might build a fire, fight for warmth in the endless winter. He would not kill for food but did not need much, could live off whatever he could gather.
It had been seven years since he’d moved to the forest, since he’d last spoken to another person. Seven years since he’d spoken to a man or a woman. Longer since he’d seen a child. Everyone he’d ever known was either dead or gone and the ones who were gone were likely dead too. Seven years or close enough. Much of his life had been ruled by such numbers. Seven years in the army. Seven years between leaving the home of his parents and finding his wife. Seven years before their first child, then seven more before the child died, before they came back to Pripyat. Then seven years living here, in the house his wife had been born in. The garden, the stucco walls, the eventually shining everything. Now seven years lived in the forest, where there was no wife, no house or neighbors. Where there was no church, where there was no priest.
Once he’d had sins he wanted to confess but now he thought, If there are no people, are there sins? Who was left to sin against?
As he dug for wild tubers or edible roots in the hard and frozen ground he thought he heard an old voice answer, saying, God.
But there was no God. No God and no church and no priest. Only death. And death did not care for goodness or badness. Death was uninterested in anything we pretended to be. With his hands he scraped back the snow and the soil. There had been food in this place before and perhaps there would be food there now. He did not need much. He was not hurrying toward death but he would not live much longer.
God was dead too and death reigned and if there was evil left in the world then it was a kind of radiation living in the earth, invisible, without scent or touch, and in this place men had multiplied that natural evil, added their own part. They said a dog could sense radiation and he knew a dog would bark at a bad man and maybe they were part of the same seamless cloth. The radiation in the ground and in the air and in the water didn’t make you sick in any one moment and he didn’t think evil did either. It crept in, got stuck in the hair and the skin and in the bones, in the fatty tissues, the lower organs. You did things. You allowed things to happen. A child was born. A child was born but without everything a child needed. Your daughter, so different from other children. Different from the birds, from the butterflies, from everything that wasn’t her. A child died. You forgave yourself or else you allowed yourself to forget. You lied. You pretended you were a good man until one day you were dying of this hot glowing blackness everywhere inside you.
But evil wasn’t a matter of physics. Evil existed before we knew the atoms by name. Man came out of the Garden with the names of the world tripping off his tongue but what had the naming changed. Now nameless dogs barked at everything. Now there were no pets left in Pripyat. Everywhere you saw a dog you saw ten, lean and scarred and fur torn and running headlong across the cracked streets, searching for something. Unnamed dogs, unloved dogs, wild again. If it was evil they hunted they would never see it. Because the only kind of evil that existed didn’t look like anything.
What he pulled from the earth did not resemble the potatoes of his youth. Here in the forest they grew strange, pale skinned, thickened with unnecessary eyes, the flesh unimprovable by heat or any other method. Wanting for salt was only a memory of better days but if he could taste salt again then what else might he be able to remember.
Seven years alone. No one who knew him before would recognize him now. The body changed. The mind moved slower than ever, thoughts arriving not by the seconds but by the quarter hour, the half hour, the hour. A meditative pace. In fifteen or thirty or sixty minutes more he would have a new revelation. Everything remarkable arriving at the pace of revelation. Everything more banal allowed to go unnoticed, unremarked, unremembered. He would see the exceptional remains of the world only after the rest was discounted.
Seven years. He remembered everything before but he had let much of these seven years pass through him. Perhaps memory was like the radiation too. Memory and radiation and evil. The invisible accumulating substances of a life in Pripyat.
No man who believed was ever truly alone. Who had said this to him?
His wife, perhaps.
And was the inverse true? Was any man without belief doomed to be alone, even in the company of others?
He’d had a wife. When she died he took her to the cemetery where her parents and her grandparents were buried. He buried her on the grayest day of the year but after she was in the ground the sun came out and shined so brightly he thought the sun was saying to dig her up, to take her home.
That she would live again. He had to throw his shovel into a stream to stop himself. The water would make you sick if you drank it, if you bathed. He didn’t need the shovel anymore anyway. There wasn’t ever going to be anyone else to bury. He’d found other shovels since but the urge to get her out had passed. Death was death. There wasn’t any coming back. No afterlife, only afterdeath, and the afterdeath was in the dirt.
The earth would eat us all but until then he would eat potatoes.
He’d had a knife then. He had the knife still. Sometimes when he walked the forest he took out the knife he’d had when he’d had his wife and he carved her name into the trees. He wasn’t afraid to forget it but it was good to read it, to have the letters make the sound in his mind, to hear it spoken. She had been in the world. Her name was in it still. As long as the trees lasted he knew he’d carved enough trunks he wouldn’t ever go too long without her.
What had her voice sounded like?
Seven years since he’d heard her last words. She was the one from Pripyat. This had been her home. He had met her the first time, had taken her away, had brought her back. By then she was sick and he thought he would be sick soon too. But she had died and he had lived.
They had come back together but sometimes he remembered it differently. In his memory he had come back alone because now it was hard for him to imagine doing anything not alone. And what was memory but imagination girded with fading truth.
When he returned to the cave he found the coals of his fire gone cold and empty. If he wanted anything from Pripyat it was matches but there were other ways to start a fire. Dark would fall soon and the cold would increase and as he gathered kindling he knew that what he was making was no home, only a hole, a burrow for a man who knew at last that he was an animal like all the rest.
He had wanted to do the right thing for his wife but she was gone, they were all gone, and he didn’t know if he still believed in right or wrong. He supposed he was no longer a moral creature. The earth was death and the earth radiated with evil and the evil soaked into your bones. He wasn’t born a moral creature but for a time he had been made one by motherland and marriage. A righteous task could make a righteous man but all he had left to do was live or die. The evil burned in the ground and it came up into his skin and his lungs and when it killed him he would go into the ground too, become one with it.
The good man in the bad world. He had believed once but now he knew the world was neither good nor bad. The world was death and against death there was no sufficient goodness. And what did goodness matter if it couldn’t change the world.
He walked among the trees of the forest, gathering what dead wood had fallen since the last snowfall. It hadn’t snowed in days but there was snow on the ground, thick and crusted and long from melting. Everywhere he went there were tracks but not footprints, never footprints again. Only the mark of wild boar and wild deer, of wild dog and wolf. Everywhere the marks of beasts and on the trees the marks of his knife, her name, the name keeping him company, the last company he craved.
He couldn’t remember her voice. He couldn’t call her last face to mind, not the false face she’d worn at the end. He liked seeing her as he’d met her, young, fresh, smiling. Even then full of the radiation killing her but without a hint of its effects. It would take so long for the evil to have its way. Long enough they could believe it never would. Evil got inside her but he couldn’t see it, but it didn’t change who she was. So kind and joyful, an antidote to himself, to who he knew himself to be. He had never known joy before her. When she was alive he’d thought he would never lack it again. But then the birth of their poor daughter. Then the wages of radiation, of dirt, of the pitiless earth.
He would live but he wouldn’t live in joy. There would be no more gladness. He was a thing running its course. Empty as a river. Moral as a river. Until the earth opened up and swallowed it whole, spring and source and the carve of its route.
A man living in the forest. A man who had lost everything he’d ever loved. Somewhere in the distance Pripyat waited outside the future and somewhere beyond that the plant did the same. All the Soviet architecture, Stalinist development plans. Districts of brick masonry, wet-stucco walls. Cities designed to last forever. The glory of empire. Pripyat, the ninth atomograd, the ninth nuclear city. Once fifty thousand Soviets strong and now who was left. A few stragglers, a few returning refugees.
A story of perseverance but against what? The Soviet world had ended. Pripyat endured, the evidence of its failure. What the Soviet world had wrought. Was there anywhere else on earth, the last man wondered, that had ever indicted a nation so fully? Did every other nation contain a city whose failure cast such fear, such wide and lasting doubt?
He dropped the kindling onto the snow, fell to his knees. The old grief was heavy upon him again but he couldn’t stay there long. The cold only killed you if you couldn’t keep moving. When he stood he took his knife from his pocket, placed its blade against the flesh of an unmarked tree. He remembered her name into its bark, carved the crooked memory. In his youth, he might have carved a plus, might have carved an And. He had been so sure then of his name, of who the man so named was, would become. Now he was not so sure. Or else he would not admit who he was. Only the last soul living in this frozen forest. Nameless to any who might see him, any beast or man. Walking, gathering, surviving. Reading everywhere the name of the woman he’d loved. The best thing he’d known between birth and death, between the air and the ground. Her name, of which too much was asked. Because what was a name. Because what was a name, even a name you could see in the skin of every tree, against the colorless evil of the earth, of every inch of dirt.
From SCRAPPER. Reprinted by arrangement with Janklow & Nesbit, to be published by Soho Press. Copyright © 2015 Matt Bell.