Unbreaking a horizon[0]: A diary from Warsaw

By Casey Carsel

Photograph by Mishal Weston

Spring / Summer 2022 Issue

The flat stretched away to a round unbroken horizon. And streams and rivers snaked and twisted across the plain.

—John Steinbeck on Ukraine (1947)

Three and a half months into my nine-month research grant in Dnipro, Ukraine, I am ordered to leave due to “increasing instability in the region”—a phrase the organisation that brought me here has been using since before I arrived, but that they have recently decided they really mean. 

I leave three days later. I don’t say many goodbyes, since talking about it brings up uncomfortable feelings for everyone, and I’m sure that I’ll be able to come back soon (in almost exactly one month, I will feel foolish). 

I arrive in Warsaw. I focus on Getting Things Done. I work on my creative writing workshop slide deck. I rebuild my budget. I begin a series of short apocalypse vignettes; I write: A mother witnesses something that is beautiful.[1]

***

I leave Warsaw to visit friends in Rome. The news gets worse every day. I don’t read too much. When I do, I get angry at how a country full of real people with real lives and dreams are reduced to a setting and a game of predictions. I talk about other things. Anything else.

I cook, I eat. I watch a movie and laugh, maybe cry a little. I sit down, I stand up. I decide it’s time to catch a train. I check the schedule, I walk to the station. It’s a quiet Sunday morning on the outskirts of Rome. 

***

I visit the Arch of Titus, a triumphal arch that commemorates the victory of the Romans over the Jews. There was a period during which Jews were legally not allowed to walk under the arch, as it was not their victory. I visit it just to walk under it. 

I arrive and find the Arch is gated and locked. I call my mother and she tells me that some histories will just keep repeating themselves, and a tourist visa and a train pass won’t be enough to undo the past, most of the time. 

***

I return to Warsaw around midnight of February 23. The next morning, I wake just before my regular alarm to news that three hours earlier, my friends in Ukraine woke to the sound of explosions. I text apologies to every Ukrainian I know, though it isn’t what they need. 

What they need is for civilians to be shielded from the skies that are raining bombs. But the people who call themselves anti-war don’t want to support Ukraine’s army, don’t want to pay for bullets that will be used to kill. Starting a few days later, some of my most righteous friends sit on their couches in America and send me such opinions, or say nothing at all. 

They wash their hands and get back to their lives. But by not supporting Ukraine’s army, rather than looking down and finding their hands clean, there will still be blood, and it will be the blood of civilians and children killed by other bullets, bombs, dehydration, starvation. This isn’t a fair war. There is no clean option. 

We attend a rally outside the Russian embassy. People wave Ukrainian and Polish flags, and flip the bird at the sprawling palatial complex. We block off the street. People begin to sing a Taras Shevchenko poem about the Dnipro river, about its power and its strength. My friend and her husband hold each other and cry. I write a vignette called A merchant plans his next meal while walking home.[2]

***

I came here to study the history of a people flung from place to place by powers out of their control. I came here to study the small stories that build a home, and to push against the loss of those stories. It all feels so remote now, to speak of such things in past tense. 

I wait for a friend of mine in the process of fleeing to arrive (she will not arrive for another week, and it will feel like a lifetime). I try to offer others everything they need to leave, though I do not have very much of what they need. I wake up in the middle of the night, but I go back to sleep. 

***

My American friends continue to monitor the situation from their newspapers and the price of gas. I am growing to hate anyone who isn’t feeling this as deeply as me. I grow to hate myself when I think I’m not feeling it as deeply as I feel I should. I write a vignette called A foreigner philosophises from a safe distance.[3]

***

Ukrainian friends sleep in train stations to protect themselves from the bombs. Ukrainian friends beg their foreign friends to convince their governments to act. Many non-Ukrainian friends express solidarity and work to make it mean something. Other non-Ukrainian friends repost Kremlin propaganda as if they are helping anyone by doing so. Sometimes, the same person does both. In a few weeks, my Ukrainian friends will begin posting much less in English. 

***

I visit Treblinka, where a cat bites me. That evening, I meet with Nadiya [4], who has just arrived from Ukraine. She still feels the chill of having waited at the border in the snow for six hours. The next day, we will meet again and she will speak about an English teacher she had in her childhood. She will wonder aloud if this person is still alive. It will be clear that most of her stray thoughts have been structured towards this question. I keep writing. [5]  

***

I read about Brueghel’s Icarus. Mariya, who was like a mother to me, arrives in Warsaw from Ukraine, on her way to Philadelphia. She flinches every time she hears a siren, and softly cries when she checks her phone and sees that her husband, a 59-year-old man with heart problems who enlisted two days after Russia launched its full invasion, still hasn’t responded to her messages. 

THEY WASH THEIR HANDS AND GET BACK TO THEIR LIVES

Mariya tells me her story. She cries. I try not to, but I cry too. She calls herself a coward. I drop her off at my apartment, where she is staying until her flight, and go watch The Batman in theatres. The next day, I order a taxi to take her to the airport. We say goodbye. I go out for dinner. I make a new friend. I throw up. 

***

In the morning, I visit Gemma, another grantee from the same organisation as me, who repeats her desire to try to remain non-judgemental every few minutes. I want the opposite, I want to judge everyone, including myself. That question people always ask themselves when they read the most atrocious parts of history, about what side they would be on—the answer to that question and the time of judgement is right now. Don’t people see that? 

In the afternoon, I join Gemma and another member of our cohort, Anna, on a stroll through the park. Anna is accompanied by two teenaged relatives, whose father remains working as a truck driver in Slovakia, and whose mother remains working as a doctor in Ukraine. She is trying to get them visas to come to the US, but it is not easy. 

We stroll past palaces, peacocks, and the most striking ducks I’ve ever seen. I can’t believe it has been more than two weeks since everything began, that people are still dying, and that these ducks are so striking. 

***

Another week later, all my adrenaline has dissipated and in its place I find myself sinking. I sit in bed and sob. When I walk outside, I make hypothetical escape routes in case of hypothetical shellings. I watch a plane fly overhead, leaving two tracks of smoke in its wake. the plane disappears out of sight, and then later, the smoke disappears, too. [6]

***

[0] Months earlier, when I was feeling low, I complained to my mother that my work is like recovering the pieces of a broken vase, and sometimes those pieces cut me, and I won’t ever find all of them, and I don’t know what I would do with them if I did, and, given all that, I don’t know why I do any of it. She responded by saying it’s because they are sharp and beautiful, that their sharpness and beauty is reason enough. 

I think back to John Steinbeck’s description of Ukraine as “a round, unbroken horizon.” I think if he looked closer, he would see that the horizon is actually layers of breaking and un-breaking. I hope that the work of gathering the shards is not the work of sharpness and beauty for its own sake, but rather the work of un-breaking the horizon, of preserving each layer while creating a ground that can be lived on. 

[1] From her modest home, her children inside asleep, she steps out into the moonlight to watch an unknown wonder unfold above her head. The colours dance. The air is filled with a glittering kind of death shadow that is not yet her death shadow, and it is beautiful. 

She searches for the words for such beauty, and wonders why she can only think of her great-great-grandmother, who kept relatives’ skulls above the furnace so that when bad luck would walk in, it would see the holes where their eyes should be and leave, terrified. 

She breathes the beauty in. Later, she will join those skulls and wonder if bad luck runs because worse luck has already proven itself in the bones.

[2] He will be thinking of how it has been a good week, when something will land on his cheek. He will look up at ash falling from the sky. He will stop and stare at the smoke across the water. It will not be not his life, so it will be beautiful. Not-his-life will fill the clear skies. It will rain down. The sky will grow dark. Everything will grow dark. 

The water will sparkle in the partial noon-night. He will stare in horror for a moment. Then that moment will pass. He will look around, lift a foot, and continue as the ash-rain grows heavier. A short while later, he will come upon a letter on the ground not unlike the one he left on a table in his house that morning. It will read: My destiny and duty is to fall like petals from a flower. That will be true romance.

He will stop again. He will ask himself, Who is in the ash resting on my cheek? Why am I not such ash? and then he will forget. He will keep walking. Soon, he will follow a bend around the hill, and the pillar of fire, the terrible night, everything, will be out of sight. He will tell himself that the smell of burning flesh will be over soon, too. It has been a good week.

[3] The paths she did not choose begin to recede. She wonders aloud, Is this what destiny looks like? and stares into the calm clear skies as if they are the ones on fire and the fire is beautiful. 

She makes tea, she creates petty arguments and grows angry at others in order to grow angry at herself. She tries to throw words like love instead of grenades across thousands of miles and acts like she believes it means something. 

There is still so much work to be done, but the light is too bright for her eyes. She wraps herself in cool bandages to soothe her own phantom pains first. Poor baby. Once she has recovered, she will wash her hands knowing already the horror of each death is softening the others.

Elsewhere, a mother teaches her child a new game. Parents and friends find their bodies filled with new holes. A rabbi begins to recite an old prayer: if something falls from the sky, let it be snow.

[4] All names used in this text are pseudonyms. 

[5] The sky is clear and I don’t have much except hope for the future. I am returning home from some far-off dream with the flavour of caramel in my mouth. My mother is walking next to me, filled with her family’s love and what would be my father’s last words. 

I realise now, of course, I was waiting to lose. But it’s hard to see the future until one second I am running into the sun and the next my world is nothing but sun and there are holes where my mother’s eyes should be and her hand crumbles in mine and she is ash except for a radioactive tooth. I let her go and she falls into her shadow. 

I wander through the city and my birthmarks bloom—this is known as rebirth. I see clearly now that my future is on fire, and I am returning home, travelling back from some far-off dream with the flavour of caramel in my mouth and the clothes burned off my back. 

For the rest of my life, I will wrap myself in cool bandages to soothe my phantom pains: a pillar of fire, a mother carrying a headless child. This is what it truly means for there to be only night. 

[6] About a month later, I’m back in Chicago, and there’s this feeling that I could slide back into my self of six months prior, back into my old concerns, and forget I was anywhere else, that I was changed. But when I look out at the Atlantic as I’m flying back to Chicago, when I see the Chicago River on the meandering drive back from the airport, or when I wake up to the Upper Bay through my mother’s window in New York the following week, I can only see the Dnipro river, how it glitters. 

Casey Carsel is a New Zealand-born writer, artist, and editor based between Auckland and Chicago most of the time. Their texts and textiles have been presented by Co-Prosperity, Chicago; Auckland Art Fair; and Bus Projects, Melbourne; amongst other platforms. In 2019, they co-founded Plates: An Experimental Journal with Unyimeabasi Udoh.