We are two hours outside of Kiev, having driven through fields and farms to get here. The poor, the pale shirtless men, the wide-eyed babushkas pinning up laundry, and the kids in shorts and sweaters stare at our van as we pass. I press one hand against my chest bone to relieve the tension. Partnering with the Ukrainians at Hope for Orphans, we are spending twelve days putting on a summer camp for seventy orphans—orphans whose faces and names I do not know, yet for over a year have prayed for. As we pull up to the camp’s bright paint chipped gates, Dani jumps out of the passenger seat to open the van for them.
It’s a facility the government leases for the summer season annually. Everything in the camp has been painted Crayola yellow and blue, and hasn’t been refreshed since the eighties.
Masha, the best translator, explains that since Ukraine is considering abolishing orphanages and moving to a foster care system, no money will ever be spent on fixing this place. Stripped metal and broken wood provide plenty of raw edges, so it’s no surprise that every orphan has cuts and scrapes embedded between their homemade tattoos.
Some of the neglected buildings are temporary housing built after World War II, and they’re still standing. I’m unable to decipher the difference between usable buildings and abandoned ones, structurally or otherwise. When it rains the scent of rotting wood sweats from beneath the candy-striped wallpaper.
The orphans stay in old school classrooms with beds in them. Kitchen staff, nannies, kids under five, and our group stay in cabins. We’re on the edge of the camp, facing the fence and the woods. Curled stained bed sheets the color of orange seventies Tupperware are tacked up inside for curtains, but the gaps are so wide we change our clothes standing behind the door.
The orphanage director gives us a padlock and key for the exterior of the door when we’re not there. Our porch has two plastic trash bins filled with naked dolls and stuffed animals saturated with the smell of urine.
Sasha, who the Ukrainians say was a toddler only last year, pushes the bins over and fishes out a raggedy rabbit he makes hop along the fence. He abandons it on the steps when he sees the kitty, but cannot catch him. Even with only six weeks of life experience Levin has the sense to stay clear of the orphans.
I knew that they wouldn’t be normal kids. If they were, I’m not sure I’d have wanted to come.
Living with parents who were alcoholics, brought to the orphanage by an older sibling who is starving, and witness the murder of their mother by their stepfather as a toddler, these orphans had teachers and supervisors and babysitters, not caregivers.
I had already watched the documentary Mama I’m Gonna Kill You on YouTube twice, featuring Russian orphans likely to be very similar behaviorally to the ones we will visit.
Attachment issues, manipulation for power, and hunger for affection abound. Humanitarian groups like ours came more often in the summer, bringing the orphans socks, shirts, deodorant, and notebooks that the resentful kitchen staff would gladly trade for cigarettes on the black market. Mealtimes, bedtimes, yelling, slaps to the head or a yank of the hair, these were their daily provision.
I had practiced approaching them slowly, with gentleness, tilting my head back to slightly expose the jugular vein as a sign of trust. I wouldn’t touch them unless they touched me first, and I would wait them out. If people came to love me and disappeared in a week, I wouldn’t trust them either.
The Ukrainians visit these orphans several times a year, but I may only be here once. My affection for them is overwhelming, but I will take my cues from the Ukrainians. I’ll let the orphans come to me in their own time.
They swarm us the minute we step down out of the van, and every day after. Holding too tight, too hard, too long. And you fall in love with them for it.
By my third day at camp, even my amplified extroversion cannot save me from exhaustion. My leaders coach me not to teach my crocheting master class during free time today; instead I am to spend some time alone or even nap.
I lie down, but a boy with a cowlicked head and gnarled front teeth, so persistent and aberrant in his attentions that the Ukrainians have nicknamed him “wandering Diema,” is on our cabin porch. He knows I am inside and therefore knocks on the door every five minutes, even trying the handle, though he’s forbidden to enter and the latch is firmly hooked.
I padlock the door behind me and flee from his demands for yarn to put into his special treasures box. I lift my hands in the air to show that they are empty, and make for the dirt road that circles the clearing they use as a soccer field. He trots along behind me, chattering and trying to show me his swag, the stones and pencils and plastic jewels I have seen twice already today.
Guilt for ignoring pulls on me but I push through it, and he scampers away when a new target comes in sight. I feel this hunger for God, bodily. An ache to stretch and span the space immediately around me, my every atom convinced of his presence as I was as a child.
The woods help. The bracken ebbing over the chain link fence, leaf and vine over dark wet dirt. The pines escaping into sky scape, their huddled movements in the wind like seaweed in water. The rutted road beneath my feet, and the quiet that gives me the crunch of my own steps and the gentle crack of wood as the trees sway. It rained so the air is living, moist, and the scent of sap is muted by earthy things drying in the sun.
I begin to sing the only hymn I know that always serves to walk me to God’s arms.
I wanna run, I want to hide
I wanna tear down the walls
That hold me inside.
I wanna reach out
And touch the flame
Where the streets have no name.
Then she comes. Bounding through the trees, barefooted and leaping over turrets of root and grass like a wild thing.
A dark-haired girl wearing the same red shirt all the orphans have, her bulbous knees and slender legs mooring out beneath it, like string tied to a balloon. Later, when she laid across me, conked out with heat and fatigue during one of the evening concerts, I would see the many scrapes and open bites on her limbs, the blue and yellow bruises blossoming beneath the skin at her ankles. It is then I will ask another leader her name as I stroke her dark head—Bogdana, whose name means “gift of God.”
On my walk, she takes my hand, but demands nothing. I sing and she turns her pointed face to one side, catching the trill of a nearby bird. We walk, my foreign voice reaching out, and even when I look ahead I can feel her eyes on my face.
My song ends, and she leads me to one of the small pentagons of blue and yellow benches with a pole in the middle and what may have once held tent panels above.
Bogdana leaps down from the bench, swinging herself around the pole in a feat of daring for me. She does this again and again. I coo in appreciation for her show. A few times she fakes as if she is going to leap, then steps lightly off the edge of the bench like a bird. Twenty minutes later, I rise to leave and she grabs my face, clings to my arms, pats my cheeks, and calls me Mama.
We walk back toward the cafeteria, her hand owning mine. She stops me to pull my face down into hers, so I am inches from her aquamarine eyes, electric in their capture of the world. She laughs at me when I pull away, redirecting her arms into a bear hug. She keeps both my arms, but leans backwards into the air, making me half human, half jungle gym.
When she laughs, it sounds empty, synthetic somehow, like she’s learned the tones. Another American gets her attention and I watch her dart away, ready for another play.
The next time I see her, Bogdana is trolling the grounds with Deanna, a fox-faced blonde with a coy smirk and angled hips.
The duo nick my sunglasses from my head. They try them on and make glamor poses for me, crushed to discover I don’t have a camera or cellphone to snap them with.
They parade me around the back of the buildings that serve as dorms. I am their willing captor for the jaunt until they try to pull me through an opening in the chain link fence—a place where the kids go to smoke and do other things.
“Niet! Niet!” I shake my head and fake cry, a method of communication they often employ to sucker in the softie Americans like myself. That I have given them back their own shtick proves hilarious, and they only pull harder, two young warhorses with all the strength needed to get a cannon on the battlefield. I do the only thing left in my arsenal: I break their grasp with a twist of my wrists and flee. They follow screeching excitedly at my escape, as I knew they would.
I dash inside a large pagoda near the cafeteria, walking the benches around its edge like a circus performer, in hopes they will imitate me. Soon we are in an improvised game of chase along the benches.
I pursue Deanna, who looks to be older than Bogdana, maybe twelve, but she still acts as if she’s eight. Seeing that my attention has gone to her companion, Bogdana fakes falling off the bench, faux injury being one of her favorite techniques. Howling, she hides her face in her hands.
I continue my journey her direction and stroke her head in passing. A minute later they are both chasing me around the corner of the warped ping pong table. Neither of them are in my small group, and I wonder why they have sought me out with their violent affections and effects.
We play a few more rounds of “hang on the American” as we wait for dinner. I do my best to counterbalance them, nervous I will lose their grip over the broken asphalt. My strength wanes and I extract myself with promises to see them later at the concert. Like an addict, I spend most of my downtime jonesing for more adventures between my prayers. I make myself sit still.
It rains again the following day, so I stay under the Pagoda during free time. Jill, one of the other Americans, has already set up a coloring station there, the ping pong table serving as a desk.
There are pencils, crayons, and plenty of free sheets as well as the coloring book I bring to the table. In time Jill and the older orphans leave, but I happily stay. Three girls I don’t know, and sweet Kolia, a shy and eager boy whom I have taught to braid friendship bracelets, line the benches with me.
Content, we work, the scritch of the pencils and the tap of the rain at times our only sounds. The girls talk among themselves casually, and Koyla holds up his city page for me each time he has filled another building in.
Bogdana walks the edge of the benches like before, and drops dramatically to the ground just beside us. She surveys the action like a predatory hawk, and shakes her head no when I invite her to color. Her eyes narrow to the movement of my hands.
She grabs my book, picks a page, and settles in with crayons. A few apples turn green on her sheet, but her main interest is to peel the paper off the crayons at one end, slide the tubes off and on. But even this diversion loses its charm, so Bogdana throws a color pencil at another girl across from her without provocation.
I hail a nearby Ukrainian leader, Irina, to translate and set down my warning. I tell Bogdana that if she throws a pencil or crayon again I will make her leave. She turns to look up at Irina as she lays down my edict. The child’s mane is so tangled, I longed to run my fingers through it, but this action has been refused in the past so I resist the impulse. Bogdana gyrates at the edge of the pool table, a timorous beastie, pretending to shrug off my boundary. She returns to sorting and defrocking the crayons, refusing to look at anybody.
She lasts three minutes before throwing the second pencil.
I wave over Irina and banish Bogdana—regretfully. There’s a torrent of crocodile tears and pleading as she pushes and pulls in protest, but Irina gets her away. The other girls exchange brief remarks about her departure I can’t understand, but their tones and looks make it clear they couldn’t care less about her absence. I consider that except when she’s with Deanna, I always see Bogdana alone.
Ten minutes later, she and Irina return. Bogdana face is wet with real tears, and she apologizes at Irina’s gentle prompting, first to me, then to the girls who she chucked the pencils at. They don’t even look at her as they mutter an acceptance. I forgive her and invite her back into the coveted spot right next to me on the inside corner.
She uses her whole forearm to wipe her face and nose, and smiles shyly as I produce her picture from before from under the coloring book. We color in silence, this time she bludgeons the ends of the crayons, pressing the wax to paper for the darkest tone possible.
Bogdana pushes a crayon up a little out of its casing and laughs her mechanical laugh. I see her amusement but fail to get the joke, as she holds it up to me, laughing and laughing again. About twenty minutes later, after peeling one back for her, I get the punchline: the crayon is a penis.
One of the American team leaders, Abi, works full-time fighting sex trafficking back in the US. I know from asking her about Bogdana, that she is one of many girls at this camp who they suspect from her behavioral markers to be sexually active. I take this as a confirmation. Is she twelve? Ten? Seven? She’s so small and acts like a naughty three-year-old. Of course, she has to laugh at it. How else can she shift the balance of power her own way, even for a moment?
Another orphan, an older girl I don’t know, calls her. Bogdana doesn’t finish the picture, but turns it into my custody again, signing that she will be back for it later. The rain is clearing, but it is still cold and the chill is taking more than my body.
I watch her walking away toward the woods in the direction of the bent back hole in the chain link fence. All I can think is, “Where are you being called away to now? Some out of the way place at the back of a building, some abandoned room where a grown man will make you touch him and pay you in cigarettes? You, my darling, my precious wolf with vivid blue eyes, my wild thing?”
I go inside and sit for a while, but I cannot get warm.
I spend many more days and moments with Bogdana, but the one that strikes me deepest of these is the impossible morning.
After exercise, we are all waiting around to get breakfast. The morning sun sits at a low angle in the sky, a friendly glare of full sun in our faces. Bogdana pulls me and Jill into a group hug proclaiming, “Babushka, babushka!” Jill leads Bogdana’s group, and I am deeply honored to be included in this unsolicited salutation.
Calling me Mama earlier in the week was an obvious manipulation, but Grandmother is a revered title in Ukrainian culture. When the nation lost a whole generation of men—fathers and grandfathers—in World War II, it was Babushka who stepped into the gap as the head of the household. It was Grandmother who raised up many daughters and sons of her daughters and sons. A play for attention or not, Babushka is a healthier moniker, so I decide it is safe to reward it with some extended attention.
My girl is sleepy. I’m tired too, so I sit down on the grass, still holding her hand. The sun warms my face and hands. I think she might sit next to me or in my lap. Instead Bogdana lies down, knees bent, with her head in my lap so she can watch my face from upside down. I stroke her head and feathered through her hair like my mother does for me. Gently, so gently at times it tickles. I ran my fingers down the side of her face. Softly.
She begins to mirror me, like an infant. Soft side stroke. Soft side stroke. Tap the nose. Tap the nose. Brush the hair away from the eyes. Brush the hair away.
We make silly faces at each other, Bogdana and I. Never has she been this still. She gurgles involuntarily, with genuine surprise as I cross my eyes at her. We both cross our eyes and flare our tongues, and the little lion in my lap gazes and gazes and gazes into my face. In her micro-expressions, I can see the synapses, the fallen bridges reforming as she copies, imitates, and searches. I sing to God in my heart for this gift. I know that we are rewriting her brain, maybe not for forever, but here in this moment.
The morning sun brandishes our open faces. We look. We stroke. Intimate and gentle and safe. This is priesthood. Despising any thoughts of what would cost me later, I stay in this moment. I don’t pull back. This is where the fairy tale comes true, and my dear lion also becomes a lamb.
Seven minutes later, Bogdana goes to breakfast. Eight days later I come back to America. I come home, and leave her in that place.
Cover image by Jacob Ufkes.