I was traveling with my friend and colleague, Kveta, heading to an orphanage for boys somewhere in western Ukraine. We traveled over pock-marked roads, sometimes driving on the right side, sometimes the left, dodging the largest potholes with varying success.
This part of Ukraine is beautiful but remote, everything in sight churned up and lumpen from the thawing winter: the fields, the forest floor, and especially the roads.
Kveta and her school, Caritas College of Social Work, have deep roots in Ukraine, sending students to complete internships, students like Marketa, who travels with us. We arrive in mid-afternoon, with Roystia, our driver and guide. He is a priest and a great friend to the orphanage and the boys.
We round a corner carrying our bags and a dozen or more boys hang out the upstairs windows, shouting down to Roystia.
“Where will the girls stay?”
“Will they stay in our rooms with us?”
We are the girls, of course, old enough to be their mothers, grandmothers, maybe, and Marketa the beautiful and mysterious older cousin.
Roystia laughs and translates for us.
“No, they have their own room, and you must leave them alone,” he shouts back, but already they boys are clattering down the wide stone steps and they clang out the door to get a better look.
It is a place bereft of women, of motherly tenderness and care. There is a cranky cook and a kind housekeeper, but she is busy and overworked, and the boys rarely see her as she swirls between her tasks. The headmaster, too, is kind, and the teachers. They admit it is a problem for the boys, but can only shrug and look off in the middle distance. There is no solution to this delimma.
The boys kick soccer balls and grab whatever is at hand to hold above their heads and wave at us, vying for attention and appreciation. One boy brings me an American football, surprised I know how to throw it, but good-natured and laughing when he throws it much farther.
One boy, maybe twelve, runs into a small out building and stands just outside the doorway with a chainsaw as big as he is. It is running and he revs it, or I think he does, until he is satified we have all seen him.
Alexei, the youngest child here, is only five, too young to be here, but his older brother is here and looks out for him. Alexei is everywhere, follows us like our shadow, weaseling his way between us and the the railings of the winding staircase, managing to sneak into our room unseen as soon as we unlook the door. He rummages then, looking in drawers, bouncing on each of our beds, saying something in Ukrainian I don’t understand.
The older boys know his tricks, and come to remove him, embarrassed and apologizing in English. Alexei will knock on our door at 5:00 a.m.each morning. Any time we head to the large room we share, there he is, tiny and fast, grinning and bouncing and repeating the same phrase, again and again.
On our last day I learn what he has said all week.
“You will take me with you. You will take me with you.”
Demetri wants us to stay. He has made a space for our shoes in the hall closet where thirty sets of shoes sit, waiting for their owners to go outside. He comes to get us, points to the place for our shoes, holds out the soft slippers for us, the ones the Ukrainians wear indoors. You see? He seems to say. We will make room for all of you. Stay.
The little boys pose with their buddies for photos, seem to have endless energy for it. The older boys, the adolescents, watch in an amused way, always on the edges, not as frisky as the smaller boys, but not far away from us, either.
They agree to a photo finally, when no one is looking. They go shy and awkward, these handsome boys, perhaps a little embarrassed that they want their picture taken as much as the younger ones do.
I think of these sweet boys, the ones who spoke English like little scholars. The one who had a way with the chainsaw, and the graceful athlete in the broken-down shoes, his arm instinctively finding the arc of a thrown football.
Demetri holding out slippers.
Alexei, and how he broke my heart, in the same moment we broke his.
How even he is fighting age now.
Where are they, the boys, as bombs fall on Ukraine? And the boys who came after them, and how many more boys made orphans, this very night, by sheer evil. And what are we to do?