Bishkek, August 2010.
Melissa Watts (Federation University, Australia)
In Bishkek, bullets blistered and burnt like windblown mountain snow.
His last thoughts were of the mountains. Lidia knows this as she stands on the footpath six months after the event they are not calling a ‘revolution’. The Kyrgyz are people with the taste of Lenin still acidic on their tongues, bronze in their memories. Her son was sixteen; there was no real revolution in the boy’s veins. He’d never gone without to feed a child. He’d never queued and queued for anything, or just for something. It was his sense of justice, of what was right, that had taken him to the street.
She remembers him as a child at Lake Issyk Kul. Between the mongers and their dried orange fish, there was the man with the resident camel. As the other children fought and climbed atop, her boy looked away. He was eight and sullenly quiet. He felt bad for the camel, hot and fly-bothered in the afternoon sun. Lidia knows, as only a mother can, that it was this sense of empathy that drove him to fight with those men.
Now she stands on the street, gazing through the metal bars of the fence of the presidential palace. Silver sparkles from the small divots on the sides of the bars like the first drops of autumnal rain. A few metres away, four tourists and their local guide look up at the building, and Lidia wishes she could speak English. A local man is pointing out the dints along the fence to the youngest of the group, a small, deathly white woman with shorts and expensive shoes. She is the sort of woman who has never seen a bullet hole before. Lidia watches her look up, an expression of comprehension across her face, as the guide translates. They are pointing to the window where the sniper had stood. The woman nods politely and smiles to the man, grateful for the story. Lidia smooths her shirt and clears her throat.
She wants to tell the lady, ‘you will leave here soon, but my boy won’t. And you will never walk down this street again, but I will walk it every day.’ Is it rage, or something else?
Lidia walks on, past the gate, still mangled and burned from the truck that drove into it in an attempt to storm the palace. The palace is silent now; there is no guard in the guard house. The new President refuses to live here until proper elections are held and he is democratically elected.
Democracy. The word sticks in her throat.
The city becomes clearer with each step she takes closer to the museum. In the park, water spills from the fountain, fat and lazy lipped like a drunken sailor. The clarity of her existence bears down on her, heavier than she has known.
‘Ahh, we miss that boy,’ the two old widowed sisters had cried, as they told Lidia about the exhibition that showed the men—some still boys—who died in the overthrow. Just the men from Bishkek. Not the hundreds driven over the southern border, their houses burned in the night. Not the women—there were no photos of the daughters and mothers raped side by side. That memory would be kept in other ways.
Lidia is thankful for the sisters in the afternoon when her chores are done, in the time that he used to return from school, the time while his father is still at work. She sits with the women now in that time. She sits with them as the summer cracks and breaks itself slowly like the old glaze of a delicate tea cup. The sisters pour her kumis and rub the back of her hands as they hum.
As a girl she was nomadic. She was born in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan on the cusp of the winter frosts. When the family emerged to the modernity of the city to wait out the worst of the snows, she had been unsettled.
‘You were not made for these cities; you did not sleep, you did not eat,’ her mother said.
In her first summer, as they packed the horses and the yurt and returned to their traditional ways, she stopped crying. In her childhood she learned to read the stars, the ebb of the melting snow and the whinny of the horses. She learned what her ancestors had known and she did not know how she learned it—it was just there.
One child was not the plan; when she met her love on a long winter contained in the city, they planned a brood. But it was the trauma of birth, the closeness she found herself to the heat of death that made her stop with the boy. Just one boy.
At the museum, Lidia asks the woman in the small ticket booth about the exhibition. The woman points in the direction of a small space tucked behind the gift shop.
‘Take your time. There is no charge for you.’ The woman nods and blinks slowly, but there is no smile.
Lidia can’t face the room at first. She shuffles through the hall that once held gifts to the country from foreign dignitaries. It was looted in the riots and now stands empty, a shell of the country that once was. She makes her way through the centre of the building, climbing the wide staircase. She remembers through the heaviness of her legs that she will soon be 45 years old.
How fast the years go.
She feels like she has stepped back in time. The museum was created as a monument to Lenin, but with independence came a lack of funds, and renewing a museum is too expensive when there are roads to build. There is propaganda across the roof—a timeline of events, photos, statues, flags and symbols. She wanders through her country’s past and aches for it. The moments before now, that led her here, she wants them back.
Finally, she makes her way back to the ground floor for the reason she is here. If her son and his final hours are on display, she should see them. These are the only hours of his life that are a mystery to her. He is an exhibition piece, that boy with the dark hair who smelled like earth. That boy who once had a foot so tiny she could wrap it in her fist, and who would rub his smooth nose hard against her cheek when he first learned to kiss and his balance was new.
She knows she should hurry. Her husband will be home from work soon and will ask where she has been. Lidia knows that he has seen the exhibition. Last week, as the sun shone through the small window in her laundry, she found the museum ticket in the pocket of his pants. In the orange glow of the afternoon, she held that piece of paper, smooth in her hand, and waited for darkness in those close four walls. When her husband came home, she hid the ticket in her bra and cooked dinner without a word.
The room before her is expansive. There are some exhibits displayed in clinical glass cabinets. She sees some photos of the truck crashing into the gate and the angry crowds outside the presidential palace. She thought it was impossible to feel the physical effects of this any more than she had the last few months: the heaviness of her stomach on her womb, her heart grown to twice its size with pain, and the weight in her shoulders and throat. But as she searches the photos, she realises she was wrong; there is always room for more pain in an old body.
She searches through the faces in the crowd. She is sure that is his coat.
Yes, that arm raised in the air is his … perhaps? How can she not know?
As she moves along the wall there are more photos. But she doesn’t find his face there. She remembers him from that morning, drinking a glass of milk—restless—kissing her on the forehead, and leaving on the way to what she thought was school.
‘My boy,’ she whispers as she moves along the display.
Away from the cabinets, the back wall of the room is covered in photographs. Matching in size, A4, the men stare back—an unorganised army. The photos are from their official papers: driver’s licences, government documents, and school photos for the youngest. The names are printed neatly with their age tacked on the end. The hairstyles indicate that some of these photos are old. The men would have had greying hair when they died, bags under heavy eyes. These strangers that her son died with are a motley mix: old, professional, nomadic, young. There is no agreed type.
Lidia can see his photo from the corner of her eye, but she can’t look yet. First she needs to introduce herself to the crowd, the gang, the army mowed down by bullets, who took their final breath with her son. She had smelt the smoke of burning cars, heard the bullets from her house that afternoon and she had prayed, thankful that her boy was at school. These are the faces of the people who were with her boy as he died.
She walks backwards and distances herself appropriately before she looks at her boy. She feels confused that a photo so familiar to her is in such a foreign place.
Why did I come just for that photo? she thinks. It is the same as the one she has on her mantelpiece at home. The same photo used at his funeral. She knows this photo like she knows the formation of her own teeth when she rubs them with her tongue. She knows this face better than her own. She knows every change that face ever had, every new expression, every burn from mountain wind.
I didn’t need to come here just for that, it’s my photo. She feels foolish, adolescent, naïve. She is not the assured mother that she was months ago.
Lidia realises that her boy is not just hers anymore. She knew she would have to let go one day, when he took a wife, but she never imagined she would lose him to an army. His face belongs to everyone now. He is a member of the April event, which is not called a war, not called a revolution, not called an uprising. And his face will never change.
Lidia remembers that down south they see Bishkek as fortunate; the chaos began and ended in one day. In the south, it continued for days. People fled until the borders were closed. But now it has died down. The southern people are rebuilding their burnt suburbs, reforming what is left of their families.
She knows she should be grateful, and as her boy grins back from this wall of men, she briefly is.
Melissa Watts completed a BA Hons in Creative Writing and Literary Studies, at the University of Melbourne in 2004. She is currently working on a PhD at Federation University. Melissa is researching Australian female cartographers during WWII and will produce a novel and exegesis recognising the women’s contribution. She has published poetry and short stories, presented at writers festivals and worked in organisational committees for writers. Melissa lives in Ballarat, Victoria and can be found online at her website.