I am not Elena by William Hillier

I Am Not Elena


Svetlana and me sit on the wall outside the gym.

The day is warm and dusty.

Svetlana (we call her Fatlana behind her back) asks if she can swap her double salami for my coulibiac. Salami is tastier than fish loaf, but Fatlana bites her nails, chews the skin on her fingers until they bleed. Her fingers look so much like the raw meat she holds, it’s impossible to say yes.

“Fair enough to you.” Fatlana says, not seeming bothered when I refuse.

Chewing my bread, I scrape my heels on the ground, bored.

Eating with Svetlana is a last resort, reserved for when the other girls eat lunch without me. Svetlana is twelve, two years older than me, but she’s in the same year because she has had to repeat twice.

“I’ve seen you at the cemetery.” She says.

I stop chewing my lunch, surprised.

Others have exchanged looks with me over the headstones, through the forest of weeping mothers and frost of fathers frowning like Soviet statues. Fatlana though, I’ve never seen there before.

“You had a sister too?” I ask.

“No.” Fatlana says, sucking her salami. “But they killed my mother. Shot her twice in the back of the head.”

“I’m sorry.” I say.

But that is not really true. Svetlana’s story does not interest me. We must all experience losing a mother one day. Perhaps it is better for Svetlana that she lost hers when she was too young to miss having one in the first place. Either way, she does not know my experience. Like so many others, Svetlana is in pain. But I am not in pain—I am merely the product of it.

“Go away now, please.” I tell her, spinning on my bottom to face the gym.

Fatlana stands, moves away. Looks back, upset.

But I don’t feel bad. It’s OK to say if you don’t want to talk about what happened. At least, that’s what the teachers say.




Sometimes at night, Elena and me, we talk. I have so many questions for her. Like, if she loved our mother so much, how could she hurt her so badly?

But Elena doesn’t reply to questions like these.

She only ever tells me things I already know.

“I used to play piano.” Elena says, instead.

But this is not news; there is a picture of her on the mantelpiece doing this very thing. When it comes to interesting things like what it means to be loved as much as she is, what heaven is like, or if Mama was different before: Elena maintains a powerful silence.

It is tantalising to imagine what it must feel like to be loved so much that someone weeps for you every time the full moon fills the sky. That kind of love will forever be a mystery to me. And while Mama often says she loves me, even believes it, I think, what she’s really expressing is fear. It is easy to recognise.

My six-year-old next door neighbour, Alexis, has the same look on her face when the dusty strays come barking at the chain link fence as she plays with the dolls on the lawn. Horror marks her, slowly backing away, face drained white, hands raised in appeasement where the dogs can see them, hoping to trick the flea-ridden mutts into believing she isn’t afraid.

Yes. This is exactly how Mama looks when she tells me that she loves me; as though I am a flea-ridden dog barking at her through a fence.

I tell her: “Mama, I am not Elena.”

But Mama doesn’t hear what she doesn’t want to.

This is the nature of her grief.




I always know when it is a full moon, because that is when Mama sobs through the wall. His face hangs high in the sky on those nights, lights the room like a stage.

 “Hear that Elena?” I say, lying in a bed that was once hers. “That is for you.”

Elena doesn’t reply, which is OK. I don’t think I would either.

I’m not sure why Mama cries when she does. I ask Elena this.

“You know why.” My sister says, obtuse as ever. What Elena means is, she died on the full moon. But this is not really what I am asking.

What I’m asking is: why does Mama cry only on the full moon? Elena also died on a Wednesday, a weekday, an evening. Yet Mama does not cry every Wednesday, weekday and evening. She does not even cry at Elena’s grave, where we go every Sunday to tend the shrubs, whether it is balmy and warm or the ground is frozen stiff. We stand beside mothers who weep like miraculous statues of the Virgin. But not Mama.

Mama must ration her grief, I decide; save it up like a ration book, spend it all at once. The sobbing is sad, but also comforting. It is too familiar not to be. While some children stir to the sound of televisions, or reassurances from the president on the radio, or the gentle clink of drinks and laughter with neighbours; for me what is familiar and warm is the clockwork way which Mama sheds her woe, when she expresses love I can vicariously partake in.

These nights, staring out the window at the moon’s pockmarked face, I feel closest to Elena. Did she look at the moon the day she died? Ponder his craters and curves, as I do? Or was she was too frightened to care?

“I used to wear my hair long, in a plait.” comes Elena’s prosaic reply.

I sigh.

She is always telling me things I already know.




Like me, my neighbour Alexis was born after the Day of Knowledge. Unlike me, she is too young to really understand. Also unlike me, her older sister is still alive.

Yulia is fifteen, paled-faced and snappy. We do not know each other well. Walking past her house to school, I sometimes pretend the cracked pavement is an icy lake, opening up to swallow me. Yulia catches me through the window, face grey and tired. In those moments, when our eyes connect, we almost understand each other, but not quite.

Like Fatlana, Yulia’s grief is the wrong kind. Because she remembers; she was there. My only memory is Mama’s. She has told it me, again and again and again:

“It was the Day of Knowledge—” (it always begins) “—everybody was present; all the parents, grandparents, brothers and sisters. A happy day! Elena wore her uniform pressed… oh she looked so smart!”

This is as nice as it gets. Whenever Mama tells it, I pray it will end differently. But, of course, it ends the same every time: “…and I wept for weeks, until you were born, my beautiful girl, how lucky we are to have you now, at least.”

This is why me and Yulia do not understand each other. We are two creatures witnessing the same event, but from different positions in time. I do not know her experience and she does not know mine. The way she stares through the window, it is clear she thinks the same, that I can never know what she has seen; that there is no point in trying. And she is right.

However, Yulia has Alexis now; a new little sister to replace the one she lost. You can always replace a little sister, but you cannot replace an older one so easily. This is what I have learned. This is why Yulia will never really know.




It was the first of September, the Day of Knowledge, when the school was open to all. Always a festive day, a day of celebration, as every year before and never since. The first machine gun came from behind, Mama says. At first she thought it was a mad man, but then more machine guns sounded from the other side of the playground, and she knew that men were sieging the school.

“They forced us into the gym, over a thousand of us,” Mama says, “squeezed into a tiny place so we could not move, nor easily breathe. Every one of us crushed in at angles, children, grandparents, mothers like me… I got separated from Elena. But the whole time we were there, she was so brave.”

What I really want to know is: where did they find Elena’s body? Was she shot in the head, like Svetlana’s mother? Or blown up? Did they burn her after? Were her remains recognisable?

But there is no asking Mama questions like these.

Questions that will only spike her grief.

“She was so brave…” Mama says.

Perhaps they shot her in the gym. That’s where most were done, Yuri Kabanov says. Sometimes, during rope climb, I check the walls. They repaired them years ago, but they missed a spot behind one of the climbing frames. You can still see dark beneath, if you make it to the top of the rope. Perhaps it is Elena’s blood. But why would it be so high up? How far does blood even splatter? Maybe it’s just blackened soot from where they tried to burn the gym down with all the bodies inside.

“Braver than a lioness…” Mama says.

Then again, perhaps they executed her out back; somewhere else that many were killed. Gabriela Petrov says they found bodies piled up there afterwards, like tossed away shoes. The men had a political agenda, she says, so they killed them all; every one, every age, right where the teenagers used to smoke, still do smoke, on rainy afternoons.




 “They made us string up bombs around the gym,” Mama tells me one time. “All the pregnant women and those with small children were sent to the changing rooms after that. There was more room there, but no toilets. It became so loud with crying children, too young to understand. After two days, they released us—the pregnant women, the ones with breastfeeding babies. And Elena… Elena was so brave…”

If Mama and Elena were separated, I do not know how Mama could possibly know how brave my sister was. Nevertheless, that is what Mama says: that Elena was brave, that if I could be an ounce as courageous as Elena, I should never have anything to fear.

But I am not Elena.

Truth is, I am braver than Elena was—far braver—though I never say it. But I believe it, for I have never been afraid. Unlike Elena, who died just once, I have lived her death a hundred times; each time Mama tells it to me, every year on the Day of Knowledge; every month when the moon shows his face to the sound of tears.

If the men came again, I know what I would do; I would wrestle the guns from them, make my stand, even if it meant they shot and killed me. How could I not? I love my Mama. I would do this for her.

Not just for her.

I would do this for all the mothers too, all the fathers, all the grandparents and brothers left behind. But most of all, I would do it for the sisters not yet born—the most helpless of all—so they might be able to live free from the shackles of a love so intense it blots out all others, like a full moon on a clear night, outshining light from the stars.


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