Ashley Keyser

The Scythian Barrows I Have Never Seen

Looking for Scythians, we crossed a black field and found a slick of rock,
only the rock, unimportant, smooth to touch. Sergei swung his limbs in the sun,
glossy pink

like a very large, muscular baby. Barrows dot the south of Ukraine, he said, the
buried with horse bones, with griffins wrought in iron tearing each other’s throats.

Asthmatic, monolingual, I struggled to keep up like the trip’s distracted
whom I was meant to amuse and teach some English. The three girls always lagged,

brushing reams of gold hair wasted on the little group’s boys, oblivious as cats.
Only sweet, fat Vanya trailed at my heels, asking in his Little Lord Fauntleroy

“What is your favorite flower?” Meanwhile, Sergei portioned fields groaning with my
sunflowers, into which battle or German bomb made them notable. Once, in the

he woke with a start from a dream of his wife. We stretched out, not touching,
side by side like broken boats. He called me sonishka—little sun, or sweetie—but
his anxiety

when I tottered under my knapsack (“Be careful, you must have children one day”)
personal, merely fear of race suicide. So I didn’t know for whose benefit he
badgered Vanya,

if not for mine or Vanya’s, like an apoplectic dad. He scolded the boy’s dawdling,
or his trembling at the pond’s edge, as the others splashed, in his body still like a

part girl. Sergei tossed him into the dirty water, then told me, “He’s got to be a man,”
stripping in the reeds, illustrating his point with ruddy muscles. He washed, talked

“If civil war’s coming, I’m ready, even to die.” He spoke with a passionate
that longs to be amplified. I kept quiet, but such public and quotable voices, like a
riding cloak

adorned for a warrior and long buried, seek no reply. He wore camo like a soldier
but wasn’t.
A few years later, at home, I scrolled through photos of winter boots and naked

peeping, almost shyly, from plastic tarp on the concrete of Maidan Nezalezhnosti,
dead men barely out of adolescence, where I used to sulk in beer gardens. Under
the article,

another reader posted: “I put on the Les Mis soundtrack, ‘Do You Hear the People
So inspiring!!” If that was Sergei’s healthy, lusty chest smashed on the ground, I
couldn’t know.

I last saw him in 2012 at a battle reenactment. In a crowd of drooping mustaches
and sunburns,
knives tucked into sashes, he modeled Cossack pants, his second wife in a peasant

They stood on a bridge, and I took a photo for them on the bank: their fresh start,
tossing their parents’ house keys to the river. They grinned as cannon smoke blew
in their faces.