In the village, everybody called him Motherland. No one even remembered his real name. It seemed that he’d always been Motherland. This nickname stuck to his small personality after he came from serving in the army. Then, telling his Afghanistan stories, after every second phrase, he would add, “Fucking motherland!” At first, everyone laughed at his habit, but then they called him Motherland and settled down.
Since then, a lot has happened in Motherland’s life. He got married, had a son, inherited his parents’ house, buried his wife, helped his son to go to the university and started to drink. Today, on his legal day off, Motherland was lying motionless against the wall of the village store. He drank a bottle of cheap wine, which everybody called ink because of its ability to dye a tongue dark. Wine swirled him and carried him into the hot Afghan highlands. But even in a dream, Motherland could not stand on his feet and all the time he was falling into the hot sand at the feet of the mujahedeen. He woke up late in the evening, looked around, recognised the twilight outlines of his native village, touched his wet pants, swore and trudged home.
In the morning there was a frantic knock on the window.
“Motherland! Motherland! Open up!”
Motherland jumped out of bed, not understanding from which window the knock was coming, grabbed yesterday’s wet trousers from the floor, put them on, pushed back the latch and ran out.
The neighbor was choking.
“Your Vasil hanged himself… In Minsk… In some park… My Maxim called…”
And then, looking at the disheveled, tearful Stepanovna, Motherland clutched his head with both hands, sat down and and wailed.
Motherland collected Vasil a few days later. He tied the coffin with ropes to the sides of the collective-farm truck, and then, for another six hours, he silently looked out the window, periodically asking his brother-in-law if he wanted him to drive. But the brother-in-law shook his head and pressed even harder on the accelerator pedal.
When Vasil was brought into the house, women from the neighborhood were already in charge. They cleaned everything inside, washed and prepared a bench, where the coffin was placed. The brother-in-law, with some men, took off the lid, and then they all gasped at once, wailed, wept, and Motherland sank on a stool and whispered to Vasil.
“I brought you home, son.”
Vasil was lying in a coffin in a new black suit and a white shirt with a grey tie. Motherland looked at his son, at his already dead hair, at his shut eyes, pale lips, sunken cheeks, and shaved chin. And for a moment he managed to forget about the coffin because he remembered how once seven-year-old Vasil, with a split lip, sobbing, ran inside the house and shouted, “Dad! Dad! Dyachenko hit me! Go beat him up!” Motherland had put a piece of meat from the freezer wrapped in a towel to his son’s lip and said, “You must learn to protect yourself.”
Closer to the evening Motherland and his neighbor went to see the priest. The priest’s youngest daughter opened the door, called her father, and he, looking strange in the sweater and slippers, came out onto the porch.
“God rest the soul of Thy servant Vasil!” said the priest in his loud voice.
Motherland paused, not knowing what to answer and whether to answer at all. And then suddenly he recalled how his grandmother always bowed to a priest. And he bowed.
“Erm…” Motherland began, straightening up. “I want to bury my son tomorrow. Could you do service for him in the church? I’m begging you… He didn’t kill himself … They did …”
Motherland threw out the last phrase into a quiet August evening and looked into the priest’s eyes. The priest, without looking away, replied, “Tomorrow at twelve.”
For a moment Motherland turned back into the nimble little man with shifty eyes, then he began to choke and tried to say something, “Ye-e-eh … I … erm … d-d-don’t …”
But the priest hugged him, pressing tightly to the large belly, and said, “The Lord will help you, Vasil!”
And then Motherland trembled and for the first time after the knock on the window began to cry.
The entire night Motherland sat on a stool next to Vasil. Now and then he fell into a slumber and somewhere in the distance he heard the voice of his cousin reading Psalms. Then he opened his eyes, looked at his son, blinked, went out to smoke and returned to his post again.
In the morning cars and minibuses began to arrive. People were approaching Motherland, introducing themselves as friends of his son, classmates, work colleagues; some paid condolences by simply leaving envelopes on the edge of the table. When Vasil was carried out of the house, the narrow village street was full of vehicles and people. Motherland looked around and saw flowers, wreaths, faces and flags. It was about a kilometre to the church, but they carried Vasil by hand. Six young men Motherland didn’t know put the coffin on their shoulders and start walking. Motherland followed them. All the way to the church he was looking back, trying to see to the back of the funeral procession, but even at the metal church gate he did not see the end.
Church was cool and full of sun rays coming through the narrow upper windows. When Vasil was lying in the open coffin in the middle of the church a guy from the crowd unfurled the white-red-white opposition flag and covered Vasil’s body from the chest to the feet. Motherland lifted his head, nodded and squeezed the candle in his left hand.
As the coffin was taken out from the church and a column of people filled the road to the cemetery, a local policeman ran up to Motherland.
“Motherland,” he whispered. But Motherland kept walking behind the coffin.
“Motherland!” Louder and sharper shouted the policeman and pulled Motherland by the sleeve of his white shirt.
Motherland turned his head, looked with blind eyes at the policeman, and muttered, “Vasil Vasilevich.”
“What?” asked the policeman.
“For you, I am not Motherland. I am Vasil Vasilevich. Do you understand?”
This is my debut as a writer in New Zealand. I started writing in Russian three years ago wanting to document the 2020 protests in my home country Belarus. After the Russian invasion of Ukraine, I couldn’t write in Russian so I went back to my mother tongue, Belarusian, and started to write in English. The Belarusian language gives me the voice of my ancestors, while English allows me to speak from a distance about something deeply personal.
Volha Kastsiuk is a writer living in Northland. She writes in Belarusian, Russian and English. She holds a degree in Russian Philology from Belarus State University. In 2021 Volha completed two courses at the Creative Writing School (Russia). Her work appeared in printed magazines, anthologies and online in Belarus, Austria, the USA, Finland, Kazakhstan and Russia.