In the Exclusion Zone

Photograph by Gerd Ludwig.

Thirty years, and in the utter
absence of human life, in the stunned
silence of human voices,
red deer and fierce boar
flourish—in the Exclusion Zone,
in Chernobyl’s Zone of Alienation,
the wolf, the lynx, the bear find refuge.

Foxes, polecats, wild horses.
The beaver returns, restores
the marshes. Bison roam the woods.
Bees make glowing honey.

Over the scorched throat
of the reactor, above
but not so far beyond
the sarcophagus
hiding the hot heart
of Chernobyl, home
into the primeval oaks
of the Forbidden Zone,

black storks glide, white bellies
exposed, red beaks flashing.

No human eye to see: a cloud
of birds, a shadow crossing

the earth—and then: light
through leaves—

scattered light everywhere.

Home, too dangerous to go there—
thirty years, the earth still hot
with radiation. Dolls lie
in the dust, faces pocked, arms
twisted—a world of glass,
windowpanes in shards, china
shattered—birds roost
in your broken home,
thrive in the peace of your open
spaces—birds line their nests
with lace and grass, human hair,
faces, family—
photographs torn by rain,
words of love, letters tattered.

In the Zone of Alienation, saplings
sprout from the kitchen floor,
willows grow through broken windows—

vines climb up the walls
to tear them down later.

Wild grape, feral roses—rain
rots wood to pluck
strings of your piano.

The curved back of the cello
splits and peels, splinters
down the long spine,
sings to itself in the rain, cracks
in the sun, after.

The owl returns from a night’s work,
disgorges bones bound
with hair and feathers—
the bear has found your bed unmade,
your doors and roof forever open.


To ourselves and others, we were known not as Pelia, Vassia, Viktor, Volodya—not Tolik, Eduard, Igor, Gregori—not as 700,000 separate souls, but as one, as Liquidators.

In the beginning, we were on the roof of Reactor Three, heaving shovels full of debris into the heart of the fire. Ninety seconds was a lifetime’s work, a thousand years of radiation.

If we were among the lucky, blessed enough to die, they buried us in wood and zinc, lead and plastic.

Thirty years and even now our bodies glow underground. Even now our hair could kill you.

Not Vladimir, Alyosha, Sergei, Gennady—not Valentin, Ivan, Nicolai, Dimitri—we were one, we came after—after rain, after fire—after the humans were gone, 400,000 gone—removed, evacuated, gone—forbidden to return because here, on this earth, the soil is dangerous—the hair of your cat, the bones of your terrier—mushrooms bloom in the brain—the geraniums, the berries—the dust on the leaves destroys the throat as you breathe it.

Everything will kill, everything poison. Everything you love we came to bury.

We buried the earth, cut into the soil and rolled the earth like a rug—grass, flowers, worms, beetles—heaved the earth into shallow graves, buried the earth with ants and spiders. We sawed trees and buried forests—eggs, milk, wells, gardens. You left a note on the door:

Please don’t hurt the cat.
She kills the voles. She helps
the garden. Dear, kind Person,
Use whatever you need,
but please, don’t trash the house.

We’ll be home soon.
We’ll come home later.

We dug a pit on the side of your house. We buried your house in the pit. We buried your village.

You can’t come home to the Zone. The Zone is off limits. We photographed ourselves in your vacant houses. We ate the canned beans. We ate the canned cherries.

Dear, kind Person,
Use whatever you need.

We shot your cats and dogs. Their fur, their breath, their tongues—dangerous.

Why speak now? The human mind is not enough to understand it.

Before we came, your dogs and cats ate eggs, then chickens—cucumbers, tomatoes—then the dogs ate the cats, and the cats ate their babies. We came to save. We came to deliver. The horse knew everything. The white horse cried when we took him to the field.

Some of us liked to kill, and some were sick after. We drank vodka to kill, and vodka to protect us from radiation. In the beginning your dogs ran toward us, but later they growled and charged. They showed us their terrible teeth, and we had to kill your dogs because everything you love grows feral.

The apple tree bloomed. The lilac flowered—rose, jasmine, poppy, lily—everything alive, but strange—the day blue and still, but we couldn’t smell the blossoms. We worked twelve-hour shifts. We gave our blood. We drank your vodka. We killed everything that moved, and then everything that didn’t. And then one day we were standing in the forest, and we saw a hundred ants on a single branch, ten thousand on one slender birch tree. We saw spiders and worms, all going their way, each with some purpose. We didn’t know their names. We didn’t know their children. We were 700,000 beings, so many human beings, and still our human lives meant nothing. We began to understand the infinities of lives lost, the ones we killed, the ones we buried. If you learn to love this way, the whole world destroys you.

Four hundred thousand humans gone, evacuated from the Zone, forbidden to return to their radioactive farms, their dangerous gardens. In the villages we didn’t bury, the weight of snow collapsed roofs, fire tore through splintered rafters. We thought nothing could survive. The bones of animals would bear no weight; the eggs of birds would crack and crumble. Sterile or mutant, everything strange, but no one told the storks, and no one told the weasels. They loved this new world, the earth wet without humans.

Beavers appeared by the hundreds and thousands. They worked day after day, damming manmade canals, tunneling under dikes, restoring marshes for frogs and moose, egrets and cormorants—mosquitoes, gnats, otters, turtles—returning farms to wilderness faster than any human dared imagine—decades of work undone—and soon the fox returned to hunt vole and rabbit. Bear and badger came—eagle, falcon. The boar grew fat, too fat to kill, and wolves returned but feared to stalk him.

Snow melted in the Carpathian Mountains and flowed four hundred miles northeast to flood abandoned fields. Without canals or dikes to slow the water, the Pripyat River rose twenty-five feet and spread ten miles. And the beaver saw that it was good, and with his holy work continued.

In the Exclusion Zone, time spins backward. In the Zone of Alienation, bison return to the forest—black storks, wild horses. We did not imagine these beings. The human mind did not invent them.

Days after the fires of Chernobyl, as whirling winds carried radioactive particles to Poland, Germany, Austria, Romania—Switzerland, France, Belgium, India—England, Greece, Israel, Canada—Kuwait, Japan, Turkey, America—as radio- active rain fell on Waterford, Ireland—as thousands of poisoned reindeer in Scandinavia were oh-so-mercifully slaughtered and buried, the people of this planet learned: every particle of rain touches the face; everyone on Earth is ours; anything on Earth can happen.

Hear the author read this piece aloud at

Melanie Rae Thon (last name pronounced “tone”) is an American Writer. She is a recipient of a Fellowship in Creative Arts from The John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, a Whiting Writer’s Award, the Hopwood Award, two Fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Mountains & Plains Independent Booksellers Association Reading the West Book Award, the Gina Berriault Award, and a Writer’s Residency from the Lannan Foundation. In 2009, she was Virgil C. Aldrich Fellow at the Tanner Humanities Center. Thon’s most recent books and chapbooks are The Bodies of Birds (2019); Lover (2019); and The Good Samaritan Speaks (2015). She is also the author of the novels The Voice of the River (2011); Sweet Hearts (2001); and others.


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