Alexander said guard the church. I guard the church.
Next to the church stands a thicket of wintery trees, petrified, trunks silvered with what looks like ash from the war.
The church is half built. Until Alexander told me to guard the church, kids with spindly legs climbed the stonework in dirty school shoes, bed sheets bundled under arms. Bunching the sheets like parachutes, they jumped from the walls. They mouthed machine gun noises as they fell, mimed blood bursting from chests, and they laughed and laughed. They had no respect because they had no fathers.
Now I guard the church because Alexander told me to guard the church. The sun burns a hole in the blue above then blazes the horizon. The trees in permanent winter ignore the seasons, although in moonlight, the grey trunks writhe. I bite a piece of my lip and let the flesh play around my tongue.
I have a visitor, the first since the children left. A vagabond pulls a trap laden with empty bird cages up the road towards me. He wears two thick coats and hums an operatic tune. Alexander did not tell me to expect him. When he sees my rifle, he smiles crookedly and shouts “Der Vogelfänger bin ich, ja”, slurring his clumsy German with a Leningrad accent.
“I am the bird catcher.”
The stranger and I exchange unbroken stares. His features are unclear from this distance but he does not move and I cannot leave the church. Minutes, months, decades pass. Caterpillars crawl the trunks in the thicket, laying a shroud of silk over the bark. They carry the winter with them. The vagabond stands dead-eyed and ashen and his skin creeps with shapes under the moon. I wait for him to move, for the children to return, for someone to carry on building the church. I wait for sundown, for a new war, for this season to be over, for something to live again.
I wait for Alexander.