Foreshortened in the harsh late winter light
the blackened wrecks seem smashed together,
burned out nose to blasted tail,
tanks and trucks and broken men
strewn litter-like across the buckled road to Kyiv.
The stench of burning rubber overlays the smell of human blood.
No helpful witness tells the story, who won the battle, who lost the war.
But look, all is written out for you to read,
a tale set down by Satan's scribe in hell's unholy alphabet;
your nightmares can read them if your day eyes cannot.
Turretless tanks stand for pride undone,
blackened metal for the cleansing fire.
Dead men stand for dead men.
The signifier is the signified, and both are infamy.
Listen—someone's coming down the road.
Take shelter here behind this corpse
hanging halfway out the hatch of an upturned IFV,
and we will see if this is enemy or friend.
But nothing one expects to see in Bucha shows its face,
not a soldier or a stunned civilian,
not a cameraman who wants our reactions
for human interest on the six o'clock news.
A pale horse picks its careful way along the blacktop,
Calm and stately, patient as time. It rider's face is cloaked in gray.
It makes no sign of noting or caring
as it steps through history
past severed legs and shards of shattered iron.
Nearer and nearer, slow and relentless,
stalker of battlefields, angel of death.
Who will ask questions
when answer was given
long before any
who died here were born?
Once upon this very road other tanks fought other men,
sickle and swastika, battles like earthquakes.
Behind them trace the hoofprints back
to men with muskets wreathed in smoke,
cannons roaring, horses rearing;
behind them yet farther to Tatars and Rus,
to nameless steppes riders who conquered the westlands
leaving their languages sweet on our tongues.
The gray-covered rider raises its standard,
showing its symbol to living and dead.
Not a skull, not a sword, but Ouroboros, tail in mouth.
Master of serpents, circle unending,
lord of oblivion, king of the deep.
Long have we seen you, woven in woolen,
painted on velvet, tattooed on skin.
Now yet again we write your story,
this time with javelins, stingers and drones,
this time with Slavic men in tanks and rockets like meteors.
The letters are new but the words are unyielding.
Life devours itself.
–John Bedell, 3/27/2022