Understand this: My father was born with a bullet in his head.
My father came into this world late and screaming. This was 1953, inside the Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital, off the New Brunswick trolley line. My grandmother panted in her bed, blinded by her labor. The nurse only noticed after bathing the child. Flecks of blood swirled down the drain, the tender stump of the umbilical cord shriveling in the water. Skin pink and soft except for the grey bump pebbling in the infant’s forehead, right between the eyes.
The nurse noticed, but she did not understand. She assumed a defect, maybe an infection. It wasn’t until my grandfather entered the room, observed his son snuffling quiet in the bassinet, that anyone realized the true nature of the child’s condition.
“Отчего?” he cried out. “This cannot be. He is an innocent.”
The nurse ushered my grandfather out into the hall. She could only parse every other word, my grandfather lapsing between Russian and heavily accented English, but guessed the lamentations concerned the deformity in the baby’s skull. The severity of the reaction, the depth of my grandfather’s shock, seemed out of proportion to the injury.
“Sir, please calm down. It’s probably just a minor cosmetic condition. I’m sure we’ll be able to clean it up if it doesn’t go away on its own.”
My grandfather waved off the nurse’s comfort. Squinted the water out of his eyes, straightened his suit jacket.
“Nyet. No. This, this is not a thing that will go away. Not on its own.”
* * *
You have questions.
How do I know? The dialogue, the details of the scene. After all, I wasn’t there. I did not hear the choked voice of my grandfather, caught between languages in his shock. I did not see the nurse plunge the infant under cold water, gloved hands cradling the back of the blood-spangled head. How could I speak the truth at such a distance? Is this even my story to tell?
The answer is that the truth is in the story, and the story is in my blood. That is the tragedy of all this. (One of the tragedies anyway.) You train yourself to believe that you have control. You believe that the story is just a thing you carry in your head, a tamed creature at your beck and call. The tragedy comes from that moment when you discover that you had it all backwards. When you understand that, in fact, the story was carrying you.
* * *
My phone rang shrill the morning my father discovered the news about Bykivnia. This was 1994, in the cramped kitchen of my Squirrel Hill apartment.
“Did you see the news?”
“What?” My voice yawned bleary. My coffee mug dripped a brown halo onto my newspaper, half-drunk. At the time, I blamed the care facility for not keeping him away from the phones at least until after nine.
“Today’s Post-Gazette, page nine.”
I lifted my mug, crinkled my way through the paper. I found the story, the headline blaring black. “Mass Grave Discovered in Bykivinia.” A searing shard of pain shooting from the metal in my forehead. I let the headline sink, our conversation idle into a cradle of static.
“You think that this is where it happened?” I asked, finally.
“Where what happened?”
“You know, with Grandpa—”
“Who is this?”
“Dad, it’s me.” I had forgotten how bad things had gotten. I usually imagined my father forgetting where he put his keys, why he walked into a room. I did not confront the ugliness of his early onset dementia. The brutal consequences of a lifetime of lead poisoning, slowly seeping into his bloodstream, so close to the brain. “Your son, remember. You called me?”
“Oh yes, yes. I did.” My father coughed, muffled thunder through my earpiece.
“The news. About Bykivinia. Do you think that’s where it happened?”
“Yes! Bykivinia.” Dad forgot to pretend. Excitement charged through his voice, the revelation fresh again. “That’s the place, I’m sure of it.”
Even with all that he had lost, I believed him. He knew the story so well, that it would have to be the last thing to go. It was elemental.
“It’s amazing.” I said. “When you think about it, that it was able to stay buried for all these years.
“We have to go.” Spoken quiet, on the cusp between voice and breath.
“What was that Dad?”
“We have to go. If we’re ever going to end this, we have to go.”
I do not remember the last time I heard my father speak with such conviction. Nothing good would come of it. He needed rest, familiarity. A trip out of the country went against all the brochures. The flight to Kiev would cost more than my rent.
“Okay. We’ll go.”
Another maw of silence on the other end of the line. I waited.
“You still there?” I asked.
“Yes, yes. We will have to go…” My father’s voice trailed off to a place I could not follow. “Where is it that we’re going again?”
“…To see family.” I said.
“Oh that would be nice. You should meet my son. I think you would like him.”
“I love you too Dad.”
I hung up the phone before he could say goodbye.
* * *
This was at a time when I believed I did not need much to live. My bedroom was a bare mattress on a hardwood floor. My walls were white, bare except for spackles of plaster where the rain had sogged in. I owned one pot, two pans, and a microwave. Everything else, in some form or another, was disposable.
It was not squalor; it was an ethos. I wanted to embrace my own impermanence. I thought long and hard about my future after putting my father in a home, and I came to some conclusions that I thought unassailable. I believed that any long term plans I made would be an act of farce. I believed that any lasting relationship I fostered would be an act of cruelty.
I was young, and I romanticized the sense that I was the bearer of a terrible curse. It gave me purpose. I believed the greatest good I could do was to bring about the tidiest end to the family story. One way or another.
When I booked the tickets for my father and me, I did not need to give anyone notice. I didn’t even need to lock my door. There was nothing for me to leave behind.
* * *
Imagine this: You are a Jew in Soviet Ukraine in the time of Stalin. You come of age on the heels of the Great Purge. Neighbors, relatives, teachers erased from existence. Not just dead, but gone in the unspeakable way. Their names never again crossing anyone’s lips, except on cold winter nights after one too many drinks.
You are seventeen years old, and Germany has betrayed its alliance. All across the western Soviet territories, Jewish citizens are shipped to Serbia in anticipation of the coming Nazi invasion. It is ostensibly an act of charity, saving them from the brutality of the invading forces, but even this salvation takes the form of work camps and bitter, bitter cold. You are seventeen years old. The lie so small, the need for soldiers so great, that no one even asks a question when you change the date of your birth in your enlistment papers.
* * *
The bullet was fused to the skull. So the doctor told my grandfather, his son sitting restless in the waiting room outside. Based on the x-rays, it was an outgrowth rather than an intrusion. It should be impossible, the doctor said, scratching his neck in bafflement. But there it was, the lead lodged just above the nasal aperture, as natural as a seed in earth.
My grandfather tried everything. Doctors and surgeons, rabbis and priests, psychics and shamans. No one had an answer that satisfied; no one could pry loose the bullet from his son’s skull. My grandfather’s efforts may have failed, but they were not without consequence. They taught my father from a young age that the bullet he carried was a loathsome thing. The metal in his forehead made him wrong, unclean. When, in middle school, the other children mocked his mark, my father did not fight back. Their taunts synchronized with what he already knew to be true—that he had been born broken.
At sixteen, my father took a straight edge razor to his forehead. He dug at the bullet, hand unsteady from the pain. Blood streamed down his nose, splattered on the pale blue carpet of his bedroom. My grandmother would find him unconscious, maimed and puddled on the floor.
A washcloth pressed to the streaming wound, an ambulance wail. A long hour of waiting, blood transfusions, a bandage wrapped tight across the wound. The culmination: a puckered, pink star scarred into my father’s forehead. The grey of the bullet blooming in its center.
* * *
When I arrived to sign my father out of the assisted living facility, the attendant tried to talk me down.
“Breaking his routine could make everything worse,” she said, squinting at my paperwork. “It’s a delicate situation.”
“It was his idea. He’s the one who wanted this in the first place.”
“That may be so, but…” she looked at a smudge in the plexiglass divider separating her counter from the lobby, searching for the right phrasing. “For someone like your father. He’s not always going to be in a position to know what he wants. What’s best for him. Do you understand?”
“This’ll be the last time. Once we come back, we’ll stay put.”
A pause. The air conditioner thrummed. A dry artificial cold, smelling of mildew and industrial strength cleaner.
“He needs this,” I added. Even though she could not stop me, even though it was my name scrawled at the bottom of the checks keeping him in this place’s care, it was important to me for the attendant to think I was doing the right thing. Or, at least, that I was doing the wrong thing for the right reasons. “I know he needs this.”
The attendant sighed, signed off on my paperwork. I waited in a stiff plastic chair while they retrieved my father from his room. I was alone—no other family members using Monday mid-morning for their visiting hours. The Price is Right played on TV, just for me. Tinny yodeling sang out of the speakers, merrily keeping time as a contestant discovered she had missed the mark.
Two years ago, I drove my father to this home for the first time. It had been Dad’s idea. He was aware he was slipping, discovered himself lost on the block where he lived. We talked, at the wobbly kitchen table of his Polish Hill home. The way Dad saw it, he would soon become a burden. His split with Mom had been on bad terms, his family ties, long since severed. I was all he had left. I was the one who would have to bear it.
We drank Rolling Rock as Dad broke down our options. I had just graduated from Pitt with a degree in communications. I had found work in the PR department of a health insurance company, mostly contacting media for charity events. The pay was mediocre, but it covered my apartment, provided me with enough benefits to offer some semblance of stability.
Dad said option one was for him to move in with me. Space would be tight. My life, tethered to his needs. Option two was for us to find a home. A care facility within our budget. Dad had squirreled away enough money to cover the first year. If we sold the house, if I chipped in with a little of my own salary, we could make it work.
The way Dad described it, it did not even sound like a choice.
The yodeling cut off abruptly, jogging my attention back to the waiting room TV. Bob Barker winced in sympathy as the cardboard mountain climber fell off a cliff.
A click as the door to the hall opened. My father shuffled into the waiting room, guided by an attending nurse. It was disorienting, how strong he looked. His hair had thinned but still covered the bulk of his scalp in black frizz. His shoulders were broad, his face lined but not ravaged. If not for the uncertainty of his step, the aimless wander of his eyes, you would think he was just outside his prime. You would think he had, would have, so much time.
“Aaron?” he said. I chose to take comfort in the recognition, ignore that the fact that I was still a question to him.
“Yeah, Dad.” I took his arm from the nurse. “You ready to go on a trip?”
“Yes, yes.” Dad nodded. He leaned over to whisper to me conspiratorially. “It’ll be good to get outta here. They keep playing tricks, moving the furniture on me.”
The nurse gave me Dad’s medication, instructed me on the dosage. He underlined the important parts on the prescription. Two pills of memantine, twice a day, with meals. He emphasized that it would not make Dad better, but it would make him more manageable.
We left through the sliding doors, my father and me. Walked out from cold to warm, our twin bullets absorbing the summer heat. The burn was dull and familiar. My father had become a mystery to me in many ways, but here, I could know beyond a doubt what he felt.
We crossed the asphalt of the parking lot without saying a word. We did not have to.
* * *
I wonder if, knowing what I know now, I would have done it the same way. At the time, I believed I had the power to fix things on my own. I believed that we could return to the scene, and close the loop, write our own ending. I believed that when the bullets dislodged from our foreheads, they would tumble out hot like they were just fired from the gun.
I didn’t know any better. This was three years before Monica. I was still convinced that our story was small, and the cast was set. I was committed to the idea that we were on our own, my grandfather, my father and me. We were the engines of this story and we would either perpetuate it or bring it to a close. The rest of the world, irrelevant extras.
Of course, Monica would end up complicating that logic. When I met her, she had just started tending bar at the Squirrel Cage, a dive off Murray Avenue. It had two beers on tap and fake blood stains on the fridge six months after Halloween, but the lighting was dim and you could sit alone in a corner without anyone asking you questions. It was ideal for someone like me, interested in the balm of company without the obligation of conversation. A way for me to feel less lonely without surrendering my solitude.
How Monica drew me out, I can’t remember. It might have just been her vulnerability when she first started. The way she would tuck her hair behind her ear when she was nervous, the way she would carry drinks with tai-chi slowness for fear of a spill when she had to walk them out to one of the booths. Maybe it was sympathy. Or maybe she asked the right question that got me started, that then had me looking her in those muddy brown eyes and forgetting myself. Talking easy. Looking forward to her shifts. Thinking about every small part of my day as a potential story I could tell her, something that could make her laugh.
It happened somehow both slow and instantaneous. Long before she asked if I wanted to walk over to Aiello’s to keep the conversation going after her shift, I had already set aside the space for her in my mind. My thought process had recalibrated. The romance I had for my isolation, the love I had for my own sense of self-sacrifice, crumbled under the external pressure. Regardless of the history that bore me into this world, regardless of how my part of the story was going to end, I still was a part of this world. Cutting myself off, maybe it minimized the damage, but it also minimized the good.
This is all to say, maybe I would have thought things through if I had seen the news story three years later. Maybe I would have thought about what the journey would accomplish. Maybe at least I would have called ahead, talked to someone, asked for help.
That’s the thing about stories, about history. You can quibble with the particulars, imagine a world where it all happened differently. But the ink is already dry on the page. There’s no going back.
* * *
Feel this: the bite of winter in the grip of your gun. Fingers numbed blue, wind slapping every scrap of exposed skin.
This is 1944. You have seen three years of war. The Germans have begun to retreat but only just. Much is still uncertain. Food is scarce, warmth unheard of for months at a time. Snow slushes up into the cracks of your boots and leaves your ankles swollen and red where it melted into your socks.
Meanwhile, in Moscow, important men make decisions. After prying Poland loose from the Germans, all Polish men of age were conscripted to help the Soviet cause. The manpower is a boon at first, but in time, generals and party leaders begin to question the wisdom of incorporating them into the Soviet ranks. There are only so many resources. The farmland is ripped dry. There are only so many mouths that can be fed.
Then there is the question of loyalty. What if, in the best of all worlds, the Soviet Union prevails, pushes the Eastern front back into Germany? Where will these Polish soldiers stand in the world to come? What will they do when Poland is integrated into the Soviet bloc? Who will they fight for, when they must choose between independence and the union?
You are not privy to these conversations. Your unit does not help sweep up Polish soldiers for interrogations. You do not guard the prisons. You are not there to listen, as hour after hour, their loyalty is questioned. No, your assignment comes at the end.
In Ukraine, before you join the Eastern front, you help dig a long ditch. Roughly two meters deep, close to one hundred meters in length. You ready your revolver as the prisoners are marched in front of you. Blindfolded, hands tied behind their backs. Hundreds stand at the edge of the ditch, unaware of the hole in front of them. Many begging, praying in a language you do not understand.
You are cold and tired. You have one job ahead of you, and it is simple. One by one, a bullet to the back of the head.
* * *
My father moved away for college, leaving his childhood home of Linden, New Jersey in favor of the smoke-stained streets of 1970s Pittsburgh. He attended Duquesne University, a Catholic college, in concession to his Irish-Catholic mother. Regarding his Russian-Jewish father, he felt no such obligation.
My father did not visit during holidays. He split rent for an apartment in the South Side, living in debauched, youthful poverty above a sports bar. He invented stories to explain the bullet in his head. Sometimes, he was shot trying to stop a mugging off Forbes Avenue. Sometimes, he was the victim of a botched mafia hit. In his darkest story, my father pulled the trigger himself. He would let the tragedy sink in, take a swig from his beer. Look back up with eyes agleam. But I guess the big guy wasn’t done with me just yet.
The stories were a hit at the bar, dazzled at parties. During his three years at college, my father called home irregularly, spoke little when he did. In 1976, as a courtesy, he phoned to tell his parents that he would be getting married at the courthouse that same day. His mother cried. His father did not say anything at all.
Six months later, at McGee Women’s hospital, I emerged screaming into this world. My mother was shocked when she saw my face. She had not been told the full truth. She could not understand.
Outside, snow slapped at the windows, melted in trickles down to the sill. My father looked upon me and sighed. It was a hard curse to bear, but at least, beyond a doubt, the child was his own.
On January 8th, 1977, I was born with a bullet in my head.
* * *
Given his own struggles, I don’t know what made my father accede to parenthood. Maybe he didn’t understand how it would work. Maybe he thought the price would be paid with his life alone.
For many years, I thought it would be a grave injustice for me to bring a child into this world. Even after our courthouse marriage, even after Monica and I pooled our resources and bought a sliver of a house wedged in the outer edge of Bloomfield, I held fast to this position. I would make the most of the life that I had, but I would not condemn another.
For her part, Monica did not take much convincing. She had her own questions of inheritance, a history of debilitating depression that ran through her mother’s side. Monica herself was mostly okay, but then it would hit her in a wave and she would drift for weeks at a time. An adjustment to her medication or sometimes just a change in the light would reel her back, but the risk was always there. What would we be creating, if we were to combine our broken codes to create another?
And yet. I think even in those early conversations, even when we held each the other and made them swear off the possibility, I think we both felt it. That question about whether this life could be something more. Whether we were neglecting our chance to create the engine of its expansion.
* * *
On the approach into Kiev, I flicked my lighter on and off, its flame tonguing out in nervous darts. The pack of cigarettes sagged empty in my shirt pocket—I had burned through the last five of them over the course of our connecting flight out of Paris. The ashtray built into the seatback in front of me still smoldered with their waste.
My father slumped in his seat. The medication made him tired, thank god. I had not realized how much of my attention he would require. I made the mistake of leaving him when I went to use the bathroom at Pittsburgh International. When I came out, he was gone, raptured into the crowd. I scrambled, eventually finding him drifting away on the people mover. I had to run to catch him.
The plane bucked on its way down. Turbulence that jostled my head and turned my stomach. My father’s eyelids flickered but did not open. I leaned back into my headrest, closed my eyes. It would all be over soon. Survive this, and the rest would fall into place.
We disembarked at Boryspil International, passed through customs without a hitch. In a minor miracle, my father said all the right things, said no when asked if he had anything to claim. We exited into a vast open space contained within gleaming glass walls—the airport pristine in its open industrial sprawl. I found a taxi and passed the newspaper clipping to the driver.
“Can you take us here,” I said, pointing to the name in the headline. “Bykovnia?”
The taxi driver looked from the article to my father and me and back again.
“Bad idea,” he declared in clipped, accented English. “Is nothing there.”
“That’s okay. We still want to go.”
After another moment’s hesitation, the driver waved us inside. A few muttered words muffled by my closing of the door.
“I’m sorry, what was that?” I asked, settling into my seat.
“A bad place.” He shifted into drive, pulled away from the curb. “I will take you. But it is a bad place.”
Long flat roads shadowed by firs and beech trees. Brief glimpses of towns and factories crowded out by the forest, close and wild. With two quick turns off the highway, the forest gave way to farmland, the road now just muddy tire tracks across matted grass. We passed whole families at work taming their fields. Cows grazing somberly upon pasture, so close to the cab I could reach out and touch them.
We cut through these lives in motion and reconnected with another stretch of asphalt. Thin and winding this time, spiraling into woods gnarled with prickling undergrowth. Save for a few rusted silos, the farm life faded away. It was only early evening, but the sun dipped out of sight behind the looming canopy. The road ahead was dim, and then dimmer, and then finally a pool of black.
* * *
Hear this: the ringing throb of gunshot echoes. You have done your duty. The ditch is stacked with bodies damp with blood. Already, the first corpses are beginning to turn. A heady rotting smell that clings to your sinuses, so deep and persistent that it becomes more a pain than an odor, a dull ache burning between your eyebrows.
The last caravan of prisoners is unloaded. Like all the others, blindfolded with their hands tied behind their backs. You walk down your portion of the line. Six shots. Reload. Bodies topple forward, thud upon the fallen others. It follows the familiar pattern. The first few shots simple. The men standing silent, unprepared for their ending. The executions progressively more trying as they become aware of their fate. A couple try to run, are picked off in their retreat. Most just cry out. Scream for mercy, in words you do not understand.
“Please.” You are almost finished when you hear the voice call out in Russian. The next man in the line, quaking in his restraints. “Please. I have done nothing. Please, do not do this.”
You pull the trigger, advance forward. You line the muzzle of the gun with the back of the head.
“Please. You do not have to do this. Please.”
You fire, and the body falls twisting into the ditch. The man lies, spasming in the mass. Blood seeps out from the back of his head, but in the front, above the blindfold, you see the bullet notched up through the skull.
This was not the first man to fall into the ditch still twitching and moaning. This was not the first who did not die quick. But he is the only one who you have marked so perfectly. The bullet lodged clear in the skull, glinting like a job half-finished.
It is only a moment. You notice, but move along. You have three more bullets in your gun. Three more bodies to add to the pile. Resources are scarce.
The winter sun sets early, orange in the evening. You pick up a spade. They have to bury the bodies before nightfall. They will move out the next morning. With each shovelful of dirt, the crime is erased. With each lift of the spade, you help bury alive the man with the bullet in his head.
* * *
My father did what he could with me. He cared in the way he knew how. A distracted presence with far-away eyes capable of great tenderness if you could root him to the earth. He found work at the mill just before it shut down. From that point, he moved from job to job—a bartender at the Smiling Moose, demolition work with a contracting firm tearing down blighted houses in Homewood, a custodian at the Carnegie Library. He never stuck in one place long enough for me to keep track with confidence. I could never visit him at work without a nagging nervousness that I was at the wrong place, or that he had already left without telling us.
Whatever his failings, my father tried. When I turned thirteen, he sat me at the kitchen table. He pulled a can of Yuengling out of the fridge, snapped it open, and passed it to me still hissing with foam. I cupped the cold metal with my hand, unsure if I could really drink it.
“Go ahead,” Dad said, scraping back a chair opposite me. He had his own can and took a swig as if in demonstration. I took a cautious sip. It tasted like sucking on a penny, bitter and prickly. I smiled and did my best to act as though it was the greatest flavor in the world.
“You know,” Dad continued, leaning back in his chair. “Thirteen was an important age for me. Your grandad, all his family sent me the best gifts. Money, a bike, you name it. See, for them, thirteen was when you changed from a boy to a man. You know, became an adult.”
I took another gulp of my beer, aiming straight for my throat to skip the taste buds of my tongue. I nodded my understanding.
“You might not feel it, but you’re a man now. In a manner of speaking.”
This was how my father began to tell me the story of the metal lodged inside my forehead. Before, I had only heard the official versions—guesses. A congenital birth defect, a benign growth, an unexplainable foreign object too dangerous to remove. I had no idea about the history. I did not know how inheritance worked.
I did not know my father to be close to his extended family. Grandpa merited only the rare visit, only every other year on special holidays. Still, in his telling, my father took care not to assign blame. He wanted me to understand. He painted the scene in vivid detail, so I could feel the weight of the gun in my own hand, the thrum of my own heart racing. The operative moment, when the bullet struck but did not exit, when my grandfather took the shovel in his hands, felt like in an inevitability. The unavoidable culmination of circumstance and history. Impossible to imagine happening any other way.
It took two beers for the telling. My father clapped me on the shoulder and walked out of the room when it was over. A clipped now you know called over his shoulder.
My father was years away from true decay, but already his seams were showing. He struggled with dates, needed to keep a detailed calendar for any hope of maintaining a routine. He put the milk in the oven instead of the refrigerator when he returned from the grocery store. Still, I don’t think I ever saw a stronger man, than he was on that day. When he laid it all bare for me. When, with generosity and grace, he offered me my share of the family inheritance.
* * *
Monica and I were both approaching forty when we decided to take the chance.
Ultimately, I don’t know if it was more selfish or selfless, our choice to have a child. I know we told ourselves that it was about the chance to give this world something genuine and good. Monica had this thing she would say, about how this was her one chance to be an agent of pure creation. We framed it that way through the pregnancy tests, the fertility treatments, the long waits in the cold lobby of the OBGYN’s office. That we were going against our better judgement in order to give the best we could.
All this was true, but incomplete. Unspoken, there was a sense that we were coming up against a limit. Monica had gotten her realtor license; I had shuffled my way up to a management position in the PR department at UPMC. We had plenty to do, and we did them well. We watched foreign films at the Manor Theater on Saturdays, and on Sundays, we’d make an outing to Schenley Park. It was nice. It was comfortable. It was also not enough.
We never said it, but I’m sure we both felt it. The staleness creeping in, the hours itching away without a thing to show for it. All the while, this whole other spectrum of human feeling lurked at the edge of our vision, wheeled past us in the park and squirmed through the arms of our friends. A new dimension of experience, still attainable if we wanted but not for much longer.
I don’t know which it was that made us set aside our reservations: our selfless sense of obligation or our selfish drive for something new. That human desire to die having felt everything there is to feel.
I can’t tell you why we did it, not with confidence. I cannot untangle the knot of circumstance that led to me holding scissors with trembling hands, cutting the umbilical cord tethering that wailing infant. That impossible creature, squinting and alien and alive. Even in the moment, I couldn’t understand what forces could have possibly led me to that room, that feathery body. The question of cause and effect, so integral to my life, was still an unending mystery.
As the doctor offered her congratulations, mentioned how much the son looked like the father, I could not remember why I ever thought it mattered.
* * *
The cab let us out at the head of a thin path snaking through ash trees. Sunlight prickled onto loose-packed dirt as if filtered through a sieve.
The air was dry and crisp. The summer heat soft with evening. I did not know how far we had to walk. I did not know what I would say when I got to where we were going, if there would even be someone who could speak our language. I was alone with my half-gone father in a land I did not know, surrounded by wilderness, in pursuit of an object I could not name. And yet, I felt oddly at peace. As if I was walking down a predestined path, as if all I needed to do was keep moving forward beneath this setting sun, down this dust-strewn road, and everything would be all right.
I offered Dad a hand, but he shrugged me off, walked forward on his own. A confidence in his step, for the first time in months. I sagged behind, ready to catch him if he fell. Staccato bird calls echoed overhead. Undergrowth rustled in advance of our footsteps. Maybe snakes, maybe squirrels, maybe some creature I could not name.
As I followed my father, I realized how little I knew of this land. I think some part of me expected being there to unearth shared memories, to at least conjure a raw sense of belonging. Instead, I only got strangeness. This country, so integral to my making, was not my home.
A sharp waft of smoke and a snap of firewood. Around a bend in the trail, we found the dig site. White canvas tents aglow with lantern light, sausages cooking over a fire pit, shovels staked by a long dark hole. A few people sit by the cookfire, others just visible through the tent flaps. Khaki vests over white shirts, wide sunhats adroop. A man with sunglasses tucked into his collar waved at us as we approached, shouting in a language I did not understand.
“English?” I called back. “I’m sorry. Does anyone speak English?”
Heads turned in our direction. A few more poked out from the tents. Muttering incomprehensible to my ears. My father tried to walk closer to the fire, but I held him back with a firm hand upon his shoulder.
“Please. We just want to ask a few questions. Can anyone speak English?”
A woman uncrouched from beside the cook fire, wiped sweat from her forehead.
“You are not supposed to be here,” she said. Her accent clipped and unplaceable.
“It won’t take long, I promise. Just a few questions.”
She waved us forward. The attention of the others drifted to back to their food, their conversations, their tasks. I nudged Dad back into motion, and we followed her into one of the tents. Inside, a blue tarp littered with bones stretched wide, almost corner to corner. I shook her hand and discovered my palm clammy and coated with sweat.
“You should know,” she said, eyes centered upon my forehead. “You are not the first.”
“I should say, the others have come alone,” she added, nodding to my father, who was no stepping gingerly among the bones. “But there have been others.”
Behind her, Dad leaned low, examining one of the clusters of bones. Tenderly, he picked up a skull.
“It is okay,” the woman said, shrugging. “They have seen worse.”
The skull smiled baretoothed in Dad’s hand. A hole pocked clean in the center of the head, bored in from the back and out through the front.
“This site is not clean,” the woman continued. “The KGB must have picked through it a long time ago to remove identification. The official story of the graves has always been that Nazis massacred Russians. Polish uniforms, tags— those would not help this story persist.”
My father set the skull back down, gentle on the tarp.
“With the skulls, did you find any—” I began.
“Yes,” the woman interrupted. “Not here”—waving an arm to the tarp—“but we have found several. The bullet, it does not always clear through the bone. Its path can be slowed. It is a rare thing. But it happens. The bullet merges with the skull, becomes one.”
I reflexively brushed at the metal of my forehead. It felt hot to the touch. I could not tell if it was burning or if it was just a trick of the mind.
“I can show you both the remains if you like,” the woman continued. “But it will not give you what you are looking for.”
My heart thrummed. Tension radiated up my jaw. I did not know what I expected.
“Please,” I said. “Take us to them.”
Wordless, the woman guided us to another tent, smaller but still the same muddy white canvas. Instead of a tarp, there were two plastic folding tables propped up inside. A more curated set of artifacts rested atop each table. An old leather wallet decomposing at its edges. A cracked pair of glasses, a dented pocket watch. Seven skulls each with a bullet cresting at the forehead. Trapped, like bugs in amber.
My father crouched by the table. His mouth moved voiceless, air wheezing. He pressed his forehead to one of the skulls.
I watched at a distance, the bullet now a blinding point of pain in the center of my head. My hands were shaking. I squinted at my father, the skulls on the table. I closed my eyes, trying, trying to force a resolution. I imagined atonement. I imagined myself at my grandfather’s side, pushing his finger down from the trigger of the gun.
I opened my eyes. My father was on his knees, crying. When I thumbed over the skin of my forehead, the bullet lumped out, cold to the touch. As present and embedded as bone.
* * *
I cannot tell you how it all ends.
You have been patient. Despite my best efforts, it is hard for me to tell the story without it getting jumbled. I take my fish oil, I do my crosswords, but still my thoughts are slippery. I hope that I can prolong the fight a little longer than my father, keep the pieces together for a few more years. Maybe that’s the answer. Incremental progress, generation to generation. I think they call that evolution.
But then even that might be falling into the same trap. Looking ahead to try and find the point when we can escape our history, when everything will be okay. The longer I live, the less I believe in resolution. You’re thrown into this world in the middle of a long story, bearing the scars of someone else’s wounds, and you try your best for a little while, and then you stop. The rest is ornamentation.
I’m sorry I couldn’t give you something more. I’m sorry that what I did give you was a little bit broken from the star. I’m sorry that your mother and I could not stay together, that the staleness of our love was not the kind that could be renewed. I’m sorry that I can’t give you a path to redemption. I’m sorry that none of this is fair, and I’m sorry that I don’t have the words to make it right. All I can give you is the story, told from the middle, like the real ones always are.
Understand this: Your father was born with a bullet in his head.
Adam Byko is a writer and educator based out of Central Florida. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in The Pinch, Catapult, The Notre Dame Review, and F(r)iction, among other publications. He has not yet seen an alligator in the wild.