Chernobyl Breathes Through Us
Gabriel Orgrease

I read once that to know a bird in eastern Europe near to Chernobyl is to go to a museum to see a stuffed bird tied to a “tree” with wire, beak open in a frozen song. There is no wind or breath or sound as the exhibit is contained unto itself within a solitary room, a room encapsulated within a museum building within the world that we share.

Events that are large in scope are nearly impossible to describe to others, or to relate to at all. They cannot be grasped except by small fragments and sometimes only by particles here and there that leave little trace, and certainly not a realistic knowledge of the event. These particles answer none of our actual questions, but leave a smudge as if of a nightmare half felt.

In my office on the 75th floor at Third Avenue, I sit isolated and idle and feel somewhat ill, less than myself, numbed by the recent and inexplicable event. My panoramic view overlooks an otherwise empty cityscape. In the full moonlight there are buildings without light that stand dark in the shadows of those few that remain with light and power.

In good weather, even foul, and even now, it is a pleasant office with a fine view through solid glass. Tonight at ten past ten I can see the tops of buildings covered with a white like snow, the grid of streets, a gaggle of emergency vehicles flashing their lights, the few sanitation trucks that remain in operation. Pedestrian stragglers ever so slowly mill about with paper cups of cold coffee down there, as if they are shadows frozen forever into meaningless action. Or at least, in imagination I see them still, where I passed by their silent forms moving about a few days ago.

Grand Central, where so many had left in the cold dusk before the event to head up to their domestic sanctuaries in Westchester or Putnam counties or along the shore of the Sound. In an hour they would be together with their families for the holidays. Little did they know that their commute was taking them directly to the area of the spent-fuel containment breach. A few may have escaped north into Massachusetts to the Berkshires or even as far as southern Maine if they hurried along. It depends on the prevalent wind and on whether they had time and the energy to keep on the move once the word was let loose.

The slow word is the word that does not reach your ear while you remain alive. It is the word caught up in the deadly wind and heard only in the flight of our ghosts.

The gray roof of that terminal complex is a short way off to the west. The Pan Am/Met Life Building looms just to the north as a now-silent neighbor. The lights remain off. The Empire State Building sparsely lit, another of our friends at this elevation, is farther off to the southwest. It is as if we could lean over in our dreams and ignite these taller spires like beeswax votive candles in a last prayer.

I feel lost deep in snow. I remember a visit we made when I was a child to the Orthodox monastery upstate. It was during what they called the Cold War. (Much later the story changed and we were told that the war had thawed.) Before leaving we went to the small town nearby to shop for trinkets to bring home, those little wooden eggs of mothers within mothers.

If I lean into the corner and press my cheek and forehead against the cold glass, I can glimpse a smidgen of the East River. The water is a gray and cold flow on any night.

The events of this week present an unrealized story that is too vast to tell. Despite the feeling of weakness and the loss of blood, I notice that my hair is now falling out. Small clumps off it come loose with the brush of my hand. My hands are tinged a slight blue.

My work for Ulfo Conserva, LLC, these last years has been specifically related to rebuilding, often necessary from acts of carelessness or brutality, and despite our efforts to obtain positive results of our own, for months we have been subject to the same frenzy as our friends and family through the media of cable television. There have been too many nights of orange, red, and amber. I’m not sure whether the intensity has been the same everywhere. The distance from horror—even to the specificity of the exact number of footsteps—is a buffer. Then the word spreads, and the story folds back in on itself in repeated waves of rephrase that collapse in toward a smaller and smaller center all the way to a singular point that is ground zero. That is, for those able to hear it.

The silence in here in this solitary room is very loud. If only death had been over in one instant, like a flicker of lightning. But radiation sickness takes time, and in isolation there is no measure of the intensity of the exposure. Like those others, deliberate witnesses to a nuke explosion, or innocent bystanders in the fresh meadows around Chernobyl, we are not provided with Geiger counters. Like them, we are lost, alone and isolated to ourselves in the midst of an unquantifiable trauma. The words sneak up on us and they are found most likely to be deadly.

Before this, we endured the news reports. Threats of dirty suitcase bombs, anthrax, bioterrorism, rust on soybeans that eradicate vast agricultural areas in the Midwest, covert invasion of our bedrooms, passion, blights of locusts, bovine spongiform, drought, killer bees, nomination of Supreme Court justices, a rash of terribly polemic antiwar movies with a bloody passion. We have suffered the prayers of the righteous majority. The mass die-off of crows and blue jays now is seen as only a precursor. There has been consternation, stress, and worry. Here at Ulfo, as everywhere, we tried to focus on our work and get on with our better lives. We went shopping. And yet, today, the empty streets echo only themselves.

Yesterday there were reports of four individuals in separate incidents, people who jumped. One was a young woman from Staten Island in her thirties, pregnant with twins. She was employed as a research assistant. She may have been better read, more informed. Though it was an obscure low building of twenty stories with setbacks in Midtown, it was a sufficient height from a lower parapet. A thought of babies born without brains may have been more than she could endure.

* * *

On April 26,1986, at 1:23 a.m., a nuclear disaster took place not far from Kiev, in the Ukraine, at Chernobyl Reactor Number 4.

Radioactive material was carried over forest and prime agricultural lands by the wind and rain and deposited in unlikely places where Czarnobog alone seemed to have a whim to scatter death and desolation. The people of this agricultural land—like us, for the most part, in our urban environment—were not informed, and like them, we were not prepared. Silently these rural people were exposed, both internally and externally, to ninety times the radiation released by the Hiroshima bomb. (Our own mess was silent, too. I believe we are somewhere in the vicinity of one-fifty.)

Cleft tongue and palate, elongated limbs, mental retardation, cataracts, thyroid cancer, brain tumors—these are the legacy of the nuclear promise for millions of innocent children.

Here in the United States, we were told by some of the pundits, radio heads, that the consequences were the fault of the victims. They brought it upon themselves and got exactly what they deserved. Now we wonder just whose fault it is that their plight is ours? Whom do we choose to blame? Sodomites, drug dealers, whores...the Beast? Unto ourselves we embraced a brothel, a stronghold of sin, a lodging-place for demons, a fortress of the devil, the destruction of the soul, the precipice and pit of all perdition. Do not drink the milk, avoid the mushrooms, and do not eat the wild berries.

Environmental concerns are politics and all nuclear reactors can be seen as weapons. Not emboldened ghosts or spirits, not the promise of a free lunch, but the energy of death is embodied in the nuclear machine.

Nuclear reactors may cause us headaches or breast cancer, or be blamed for hysteria in farm animals. They are said to mutate mice and encourage long-lived roaches. Some even think they attract UFOs. Certainly, they never end their legacy, with their problems of containment of spent fuel. There are reactors that are used to produce weapons-grade plutonium and weapons production from nuclear reactors may be their one and only economic viability. As we have seen recently, they are left terribly exposed. Open and uncovered like oil fields that can be ignited to flood the wetlands with fire, an oily flatulent earth burnt to black clouds of stench into the atmosphere. Except that in the case of a reactor the pollution is clean, invisible, and rides silently borne on a deadly breath.

* * *

On my last European assignment our group sat at picnic tables, at lunch in the dining area of the Wiking Motel, north of Bialystok in Poland. It is a modest businessman’s habitat not far from the border, with beer, vodka, and cheap beds. Though we sat far inland from the Baltic, in the lobby there was a stuffed mannequin, a joke against history, of a long-haired Viking warrior with shield and horned helmet that stood stationary. Either the musty, hairy farce was a mythical god or simply a tacky omen; our hosts would not tell, but turned their heads in flustered confusion when we asked them. We were there to rebuild a place dynamited by the Nazis, in memory of many lost lives from an annihilated past. Poland is burdened with the story of millions of lives lost to the Holocaust. Those not needed, not wanted, those forgotten, erased.

We were all of us strangers to each other, come together for this one mission, but it brought out another story of mass death. Ragana, a computer systems developer from East Germany, and Sopianka, from Israel, translated the Belorussian-tinged German of our companion Alyosha. It was a rough go, but as we heard some of what he had to say, we had to hear it all.

A bulky fellow with a round face and broad shoulders that looked used to hard work, Alyosha moved his torso in the seat of the booth next to Ragana, and they both swayed slightly with the movement of the bench together as he pantomimed radiation gear, complete with face mask. He indicated a thick suit of armor. I imagined his walk around to measure walls, his mission to save a memory of sacred buildings from a culture that had been shrouded in an invisible threat that brought no blessing. He desired to find a way to decontaminate, or re-create elsewhere in a clean zone, shrines that had been desecrated with radiation and deserted. It was a death dance that he motioned, even though he did it with comical antics. He was happy like a bear or a frisky plow horse.

It was as if he had his hands on the balls of a stone giant, and it was neither Stalin nor Lenin that he grasped as much as something more plain and ordinary and even more deadly than either of those mere humans could have ever dreamed to unleash on their blood kin.

It was sketched between us on square paper napkins with a crayon. It was smeared across the grimace of his face. It was pantomimed in the jump-up-from-the-seat abruptness of the two ladies when he spoke and they translated—one collided her words against the other for a confirmation of the literal correctness. “Yes, it was like that, just like that, as he says,” they each would say in a broken unison. It was etched as if with clean womanly fingers pressed into soft bread to bring a blush to the knuckles. It passed through our hearts just as the shots of absinthe-scented vodka passed our lips.

He told us that children in the area of Chernobyl who are born with congenital anomalies, then nurtured in radiation-contaminated zones, sometimes vacation on islands like Ireland or Cuba for a few weeks each summer. It is a small respite. Of her own Ragana says, “It gives girls and boys a little chance at clean air.”

We looked at each other eye to eye around the table. We saw and felt Alyosha’s message. There was a hushed difficulty that could not be translated but through the appalled emptiness of the eye. It was as if we all had goat eyes, or glass eyes, or cheap marbles in our otherwise empty eye sockets.

We were all too dry to shed tears, enclosed and closed off, all too alone in our own personal rooms. We sat there like carved beehives with nothing to do for all eternity but listen to the buzz as the bees flew in and out.

Alyosha sketched and mapped on a square paper napkin as his story unfolded, carried by the two women from his tongue into their faltering English and then returned the same way from me to him in further questions. The story folds and unfolds like origami, and here and there our breath falls onto the table or puffs up in small invisible clouds into the space between our heads. Our curiosity for the unfolded story pulls us closer as if our heads are hungry tapers leaned in to replenish a central fire. We soak up the details like graphite rods. We boil in the story's exposure like hot water.

In the Ukraine, citizens grouped up on a concrete bridge near Pripyat in order to see the terrific glow, which put all of them directly in line with the crack in the containment vessel and gave them an extra-crispy dose of X-radiation. Leastways they got to see it! They are all dead. Liquidators, thousands of men with sandbags on their shoulders, ran unprotected into the vessel.

Grandmothers who had been relocated to Minsk returned home; they refused to be separated from their ancestral lands and holy shrines. They walked in silence one by one to return to their villages and homes, with their chimney nests absent of storks. They went to live in the dead zone. They subsisted on the jars of canned food stored in their root cellars until the sickness caught them and they withered to thin wraiths and died one after another. The generations of their dispersed offspring, children and grandchildren, whoever were not destitute or lost in sanatoriums, followed with them. All these people, disremembered, live off the land that kills them. Eat a chicken and die. Eat a fish and die. Drink from the cow and die. Eat from the garden and die. A few are still there.

Sopianka would nod her frail body toward the booth table that we each of us leant into. We forgot our meal and drink. In Alyosha’s sketches, the concrete shell of the containment vessel, the sarcophagus, is cracked and leaks into the atmosphere, drains into the water of the nearby Pripyat River. Radiation spreads, not only into the “official” contaminated zone, but into the global ecosystem. For at least the next 100,000 years it will expand outward, though the rate of travel may appear modest.

Alyosha smiled, and then leaned back as if a laughing dievini, his eyes taut. We sat to wait, and then he told us that with Perestroika they toppled the statues of Stalin, but that Chernobyl is the monument to the Soviet dream that cannot be removed.

Our own event should not have been a surprise. There was more than enough evidence to forewarn.

To forget to breathe is not a translation, but then, history is a story made up by historians, as if they are a tribe of alchemical tricksters. We do not tame nature as much as we kill, broil, and are consumed by it. Radiation is invisible and pervades not only the air that we breathe, but all of our shelters and our essence and eats into the cores of our bones. We wear our unnatural environment as a demonic cloak, both within and without. It is our breath, each breath, and all breaths known and unknown, that poison us. The transmogrification of elements is a biological and genomic disaster that creates a mutated wilderness—if you look down to the streets tonight there is no sign to deny this.