The Hymns We Used to Sing

Photograph: Mariana Vishegirskaya walks down the stairs of the bombed maternity hospital in Mariupol, By Evgeniy Maloletka/AP taken from the public domain

We were civilized as we walked.
The food we’d taken with us, mostly
Cheese, bread, and dried meats, we shared.
There was water, and as we moved along,
Some of the children sang
Hymns and patriotic songs.
No one complained. We were kind to each other.
Then the food ran out, the water gone.
We had to look toward creeks and rivers
Where sometimes dead bodies floated,
Foul and smelling of rot. We were
filthy. We itched, and our breath stank.
We pulled away from each
Other, suspicions grew. And there I was,
Alone, my husband having died in
The first rush toward fighting, the line
Between bravery and foolishness as
Scant as the things left us
To live on. My belly round with a child
I might not live to deliver, and above us
Still the planes and bombs.
My grandmother’s voice rises above the cry
Of the children who do not sing anymore.
“Do not be afraid,” she whispers and I
Think of how I had wanted her with me
When I push this child inside me
Out into the world. Now I wonder
If it would be better to lie deep in dirt
With her, dead to the stink, the pain,
The shrill whistles of the mortars.
As I rest on the side of the road,
My worn-down shoes in tatters,
An old man stops in front of me.
I tense to run—or to fight, fingering
The kitchen knife inside my fraying coat.
He reaches into his pocket and
Pulls out a candy bar. Handing it to me,
He says “Don’t chew it. It’s the last one.
Chocolate and mint, a bit of cream.
Let it melt slow upon your tongue
Like the hymns, we used to sing.”

About the Poem

Please, dear Lord, help these poor people in Ukraine, especially the children and the pregnant women. The news just gets worse and worse.

About the Author

Claire Matturro has been a journalist, a lawyer, and a legal writing teacher at Florida State University and the University of Oregon. She is the author of seven novels, including a legal thriller series published by HarperCollins, and co-authored a recent novel. She is an associate editor at Southern Literary Review.

2 thoughts on “The Hymns We Used to Sing”

  1. Beautiful yet heartbreaking words. I pray for all in Ukraine, that their strength and spirit will find a way out and that they will overcome the atrocities being waged against them.

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