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Pieta for the 41st Photograph

[NOTE: The Beslan school siege (also re­ferred to as the Beslan school hostage crisis or the Beslan massacre) was a ter­ror­ist at­tack that started on Sep­tem­ber 1, 2004, lasted three days, in­volved the im­pris­on­ment of more than 1,100 peo­ple as hostages (in­clud­ing 777 children) and ended with the deaths of 333 peo­ple, 186 of them children, as well as 31 of the attackers. It is con­sid­ered to be the dead­liest schoolshoot­ing in human history. Written September 4, 2004 — In another place and time.]

The soldier with the unlit cigarette carrying the little girl in filthy underwear with a long smear of blood across her nose and down her chin.

The boy that lies in his father’s lap covered with crusts of blood gazing upward at nothing, nothing at all except his own pain.

The child’s small hand with the dry pool of blood in the palm and the small gold crucifix lying in it.

The stretcher being run past the camera carrying what might, under the burns and the blood, be a young girl…. and another, and another, and another, and another, and another… in Beslan because it’s… well… war?  

I began to gather these images yesterday, I think. Or was it the day before? I’m not really sure. The cascade of outrages, the piling of atrocity on top of atrocity, has become so unremitting that it is sometimes difficult to know where one episode of Earth’s evil ends and another begins.

The waves keep coming and, because they are always to your back, they keep slamming you down into the hardpacked sand. You pick yourself up and spin around to face the next wave, but this sea of evil is cunning and the next wave will always come from behind your back no matter which direction you face. All you can know now is that there will be another one, and it will come at your back in the way the bullets came for the backs of the children in Russia.

Because I am both too old and too distant to either pick up a weapon to defend or offer help and comfort to the wounded or the dying, I am forced back on silly, futile, small gestures such as gathering images of the atrocities. In this I disgust myself and, like those who did not stand with Henry V on St. Crispin’s Day, hold my manhood cheap.

I thought that, perhaps, I could gather enough of them and arrange a kind of gallery as a testament, my own small memorial, to the children who were shot in the back or otherwise slaughtered by the diseased “militants” who thought nothing of these lives taken for their vile cause and their vile god. Somehow I would, I imagined, at least bear my own small witness among the millions of others doing the same around the world tonight.

And so I collected the images. I selected ones that showed the fascist smirk that always rises dark above any slaughter of innocents. I selected ones that revealed the courage of those who would try to rescue them. I found and saved some that revealed the chaos and sharp edge of the moment when all that a child may have in front of him is ripped out of him. I saved 10, saved 20, saved 40, and then came to the 41st photograph and stopped.

I stopped because in that one image, grainy, indistinct and from the far side of the world in a situation I could not imagine, I saw the one thing I was not expecting to see at all.

No, that’s not it. It was not what I saw but what I recognized.

What I recognized was something that I could not see in the picture, but a recognition that came to me through the picture. I knew it immediately and at such a deep level that my first reaction was to look away, to go on to the next picture no matter what it was, to determine to never look at the 41st picture again.

But of course, I did. I did because I had no choice. I had no choice because within this one picture I could see two separate episodes of my own life somehow together in one image that depicted an outcome that terrified me to the core of my being.

This is the picture I could not look at. This is the picture I must look at. I will try to explain — not really to you, but to myself — why it terrifies me more than all the other pictures.

She kneels among the dead children. She has long black hair pulled back and dresses in a loose black dress as she kneels at the head of her dead boy. She reaches out to touch, or perhaps arrange the hair, of her dead child. Her dark hair is parted in the middle and her arm seems to also be downed with dark hair. Her eyebrows too are dark and her skin olive.

If I were to see this woman in another context, in a different and less death-dominated photograph, at this focus and at this distance, I would think, for at least a long moment, that I was looking at my first wife.

She had this same build, this same coloring, the predilection for black clothing, and even an echo of the features since her ancestors came to America from the Balkans. She too would pull her hair back so. And she had, as I recall, the same ability to make a gesture that was at once strong and yet gentle when reaching out to touch our daughter when she was as young as the small dead boy that this woman caresses.

The life I had with my first wife was all long ago, and now I live far away in time, space, and spirit from that woman as well as from that daughter. Now my life’s setting is a small town at the top of the Great Central Valley of California.

Before, to the south along the California coast, I had — for a brief time — a life with a wife as different from my first wife as the sun is from the moon. And someone else as well.

In that life, there was, to my continuing delight, a child. He was a bright and funny and breathtakingly striking ten-year-old boy so topped off with life and joy that he could stop your heart.  My step-son of that era was fond of Nintendo, not at all fond of girls, keen for a swordfight about every ten minutes of his waking life, and both depressed and elated at the advent of the 5th grade at the opening of his school next week. If I could show you a picture of him you’d agree that he’s a very promising young man.

And I can show you a picture of him.

He’s up there, just above, my first wife’s hand is touching him. Look carefully. You’ll see him and her both. Together in one instant, in one impossible image.

If you are a parent, you know as all parents know, the single darkest and most secret fear of all. You know the fear I mean. Yes, that one. The one we never mention. The fear that it is forbidden to speak of. The one we don’t speak of … ever. The one that we push out of our thoughts before it even finishes forming. It is the fear you see there in that photograph. We fear the photograph that shows you looking down at your murdered child.

That’s what I saw in the photograph. I saw a wife and a son — not mine, I knew, but mine just the same — frozen forever in an instant that I prayed would never come to me, that would remain just what it was, a photograph of a woman and a child I recognized but did not know.

In the week after seeing that photograph I’d often put my arms around my wife as we both looked out the kitchen window. From our small window, you could see across the green and brindle hills down to the ocean where the slow Pacific swells roll onto Main Beach where a volleyball game is always on the schedule and the seagulls and surfers share the waves.

“Every single day,” I said to her once, ” I thank God above that we are all here, in this good place, close to each other and still kept safe from things like those going on in Russia.”

At that time and in that life during the week my stepson would walk up the hill and take the bus to his first day of school. Seats would be assigned. He’d be given books and lists of supplies he must have. Nothing unusual would happen.

In the afternoon, he would come home. My wife and I would have dinner with him, he’d do his homework and go to bed.

It will be like that day after day. Ordinary life in an ordinary town in an ordinary time.

And the years will flow by and he’ll go from strength to strength, from one bright moment to the next. His mother and I will watch him move ever upward into life as he gradually grows away from us and into his own life. This is how it was meant to be and how it will be. He will never be found in a photograph like the one I saw today. There’s no place for him in the 41st photograph, the one I couldn’t look at but saw just the same.

I am willing to do anything, anything at all, no matter what it may be, to keep him out of that photograph. That’s my answer to what I saw.

My question is, “Are you?”

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • John Venlet January 11, 2022, 11:43 AM

    My question is, “Are you?”

    Yes. And I have arranged my affairs accordingly.

  • Kevin in PA January 11, 2022, 12:24 PM

    Tearfully, I agree, Gerard.
    I would gladly trade my miserable life so that my child could go on living in peace.
    Sadly, we recognize that too often the bargain we would wish to make is simply not within our power to offer, or attain.

  • Double XX January 11, 2022, 12:28 PM

    GVL, GOD LOVE YOU, but it is a religion of peace !!!!!!!!

    • Mike Austin January 11, 2022, 4:22 PM

      Even before Mohammed was cold in his grave the religion he founded began to indulge itself in mass murder. It has continued apace for 1400 years. Beslan was just another chapter it is bloody reign.

      • Ty January 15, 2022, 1:06 PM

        One philosophical interpretation of Mo’ vision was to justify and legitimize attacks on caravans to steal their wealth and spiritually absolve the attackers for their actions, even murders of the victims. ‘Infidels’ at that time were likely just ignorant of his cult but the perps still felt justified, even righteous in their actions. Of course the cumulative wealth just continued their expansions from which we are dealing with some 1400 years later, almost nonstop. My prayer: One day a leader will emerge that will mutate the philosophy into benignity…and their religion will truly be one of peace and redemption by grace, not by deed.

        • Mike Austin January 16, 2022, 10:22 AM

          Any attempt to make the “religion of peace” into some benign version of Quakerism runs pell-mell into the Koran. This “holy book” justifies all manner of evils to non-Muslims: either conversion or pay a jizya or accept enslavement. No Koran, no Islam. My guess is that Islam will remain the dismal ideology that it is until the return of Christ.

  • Dirk January 11, 2022, 12:37 PM

    Wow, that’s heavy! Life can be cruel, and life can be magical. I could be wrong but these children were killed by poisonous gas introduced to incapacitate the terrorists “or was that another shot show”.

    As you wrote this, bad men warmongers are pushing hard, really hard to start a regional war, possibly a world war. Kazakhstan’s turning into a religious war, don’t all wars involving Muslims turn into religious wars?

    Kazakhstan’s govt folded, ran away I assume with the country’s coffers, not confirmed.

    And what’s one of the very first things discovered???, an American-owned biowarfare laboratory, off the books, I read with really nasty bad shit the chemists are building.

    Have we as humans passed that point of civility, a time when chemical and biowarfare were essentially unheard of. After WWI the world got together and said “ NEVER AGAIN”.

    Yet here we are, the China bug, made in China, released by China, financed by Alliance Heath Care, and our own US govt. Who didn’t see this bio bug coming? Who has allowed such hateful men to control bioweapons?

    Project Vertus? Has very recently unearthed very damming intelligence. Yet MSM doesn’t mention it. In fact, I asked my mother last night if she was aware of the civil war in Kazakhstan, o Dirk you’re making that up. No mom I’m not. She watches CBS NBC msnbc CNN and PBS. Not one word.

    How is this allowed to happen? Is it when our elected representatives turn 80 plus, they become evil pieces of shit. Or is it as simple as they were elected? Amazing what a few hundred representatives with their only skills being attorneys can fuck so much us, in such a short time.

    Kazakstan will go hot, IS it’s just politics. I see our current admin hiring mercs to represent their interests, some US mil, but not much. Russia is now flying in large numbers of helicopters, their MI 24 is a particularly nasty piece of work. Even the Russians refer to it as a “ flying tank”, to the Ukraine border.

    Biden and blinked are fucking weaklings, pussys, who are going to start a fight even the famous book “ the art of war” would define as foolish, but there’s a lot at stake here.

    Did you know theirs more oil reserves in Kazakhstan than anywhere else on the planet? MIC, big business has been interested, in Kazakhstan for a long time. I had associates here in Klamath falls who were active air force reserves who did tours In Kazakhstan 10 years ago. Mil police.

    This isn’t a new gig, this is and has been a resource, the Rick the big business people.

    I’ve learned over the years that when I hear us officials say WE had strategic needs, they’re really saying Big Business is there to rape rob steal and plunder yet another country.

    Think of the money Biden his pussy posse left in Afghanistan, 78 billion. Now that loss of equipment needs to be replaced, imagine that, MIC, now gets to replace what we discarded.

    NONE OF THIS IS ACCIDENTAL, this is ALL BY DESIGN. Between now and 2024s going to be brutal. The communist will stop at nothing. Their policy to We The People is, we did it, so what. You don’t like it, take us to court. Brilliant really.

    What happens when the Executive Brands is over-dulled in the courts and refuse to remedy what the courts ordered???. Who at that point is responsible for physically spanking the Executive branch for NON-compliance?

    Logically it’s Justice Dept. What does a nation do, when Justice Dept refuses to comply with the Judicial branch? For political reasons. When the executive branch employees of the Justice Dept, who have not done their jobs, of upholding the Judicial branch’s findings, who’s job is it to hold accountable the people in those appointed jobs.

    We have a shit show in DC. It is my strong opinion it will have to be We The People who MUST take these United States.


    • TrangBang68 January 12, 2022, 4:01 AM

      Hard to argue with anything you said

  • David Smith January 11, 2022, 1:04 PM

    My worst fear. My brother was shot and killed in his basement 33 years ago, by a 15 year old. Left a grieving widow and 2 year old. Tragic for my three sisters and me, but even more painful for our parents. Killer sentenced to Life, but now up for parole. I can’t forgive him. But wish him well starting life at 49, hope it goes better.

    • Mike Austin January 11, 2022, 3:24 PM

      I would rather that your brother’s killer never saw the sun again.

  • julie January 11, 2022, 1:07 PM

    And this is why we homeschool.

    Little League is starting soon, along with the usual array of springtime activities. I am hoping and praying that this season won’t be marred by the sight of promising young athletes collapsing on the field from a mysterious and previously undiagnosed case of myocarditis. On the one hand, most of the families that still participate seem to be pretty based; on the other, although more are homeschooled this year, the vast majority are not, and this being California, that means compulsory vaccination.

    God help this young generation.

    • Matthew January 15, 2022, 7:27 AM

      If you got your kid(s) vaccinated, you signed them up for the (mysterious? previously undiagnosed?) myocarditis lottery.

  • James ONeil January 11, 2022, 1:19 PM

    Risks. Try to reduce them but can’t eliminate them.

    Can and have tried to teach mine to deal with such.

    When I was building this house, kids around six and nine. Had temporary plexiglass windows on their rooms. Both kids in one room, said “This is a fire drill, the house in on fire, get out now, quick and fast!”

    They came running toward the door, I was blocking it, told them no, can’t come this way, smoke and flames. “But daddy, how do we get out, the only way is the window?” I said “So?” They broke it with much delight and scurried out.

    The lesson stayed with them. My daughter’s house down at Big Lake caught fire in the middle of the night and was totaled. They all got out safely.

    My son talking to his daughter about school lockdowns (Originally a prison term.), explained being locked down with armed villains is a very bad thing. Her best option is to get out and away. How? Break a window! She hadn’t realized that was a choice, but she does now.

    All we can do is give them the tools, physical and mental, to deal with dangers. Assure they know how to use them. Fire extinguishers for example. Most folks, in the heat of the moment, will grab one and aim it at the flames. Very ineffectual. Most home extinguishers have a discard date. When mine reached their limit, I’d take a metal garbage can lid, sit it out in the yard upside down and inch of so of water therein covered by a quarter inch of diesel fuel. Ignite it. Hand family members the extinguisher and tell them to put it out. First try they would aim at the rolling four feet of flame to no effect. I’d explain you aim at the base of the flame, a sweeping motion, think of brushing the flame away form the fuel.

    Mountain climbing; 3 points of contact, rope belays, Snow slopes; alpenstock self arrests. Skills learned, passed along to my children that can be adapted to various situations.

    What I’m saying is the best we can do is identify risks, disasters, natural or man made, and teach ourselves and ours how to mitigate them.

    -and, of course, avoid crowds.

    • Mike Austin January 11, 2022, 3:58 PM

      You have taught your children well.

  • OneGuy January 11, 2022, 2:25 PM

    It’s coming. Maybe it could never be avoided but it actually seems like we, we humans, don’t learn from history and dark days are coming. My gut tells me there will be something this time that will be very different from anything we have seen since 1865. I think this time we will see the killing and suffering in our homeland like Europe in the late 30’s and 40’s. Many millions dead (because that’s what happens in wars) over multiple years. I believe that. I have always (almost always) believed that. Because, as I said, we don’t learn from history. I have always believed that sooner or later we would deprioritize our military and defense and the dark forces who would rule the world will be sorely tempted and act on that temptation. Don’t, in this discussion, think that simply spending vast amounts of money means that we are not deprioritizing our military and national defense. We are spending enough we simply aren’t getting enough for what we spend. And to make it a perfect storm we have dumb and dumber in the white house and the wicked witch of California in the congress. We are so screwed.

  • Terry January 11, 2022, 3:17 PM

    The plan:


    The above video should be THE wake up call. We have one choice. That is to get tough or get exterminated. All of us at any age can resist with deadly force to preserve our species. There is no way out of a confrontation. The evil enemy has defied every law, has no morality and is being exposed. They are getting scared. Even women were executed by hanging at Nuremberg.

    • Mike Austin January 11, 2022, 3:52 PM

      Before 2019 this information was available but in bits and pieces, scattered all around the web. But it was out there. Those who saw this coming were censored, shadow banned, ridiculed, pushed off so-called “social media” and hounded in public. But each of those early Cassandras have now become a Nostradamus. We were warned; only a few listened. This is war. It can only end with one winner. It is zero sum.

      Ten years ago David Crowley was making his dream movie, “Gray State”. The movie was never finished because Crowley and his family were murdered. Of course, the “official story” is murder-suicide. How many of the events in this trailer have since come true?


      The end game. The bold part was written by Gerard, the second part by me—12 years ago.


      Let the new Age of Bronze commence. It will be an age of heroes. Of villains. Of astounding Evil.

  • Joe Krill January 11, 2022, 4:12 PM

    Your question was“Are you?” My simple answer is yes. My longer version is “I do not care what age you are, what physical condition you are in, you must do all that is within your power to do whatever you can to see that nothing evil comes to our home. This is America, our home. We did not achieve our greatness by idly sitting on our hands and hoping for the best. We had the Faith that God would bless us and we went to Work to make it so. We can do it again.
    Gerard, Keep writing!

    • Kevin in PA January 11, 2022, 6:21 PM

      ” We did not achieve our greatness by idly sitting on our hands and hoping for the best. We had the Faith that God would bless us and we went to Work to make it so. We can do it again.”

      Agreed, Joe.

      • Mike Austin January 12, 2022, 2:50 AM

        I second that opinion.

        • SRO January 12, 2022, 6:18 AM

          I third Krill’s comment.

  • azlibertarian January 11, 2022, 9:25 PM

    When I was a young father, I had that fear of finding myself in the photo, looking at my dead child, taken from me by either violence or disease. And now that I am a grandfather to elementary and pre-school aged kids, I am terrified.

  • anonymous January 11, 2022, 10:44 PM

    Their first force of assault will be/is the IRS. Even now they are INSISTING that you submit your taxes on line. What that does for them is provide them with much more information than is just in your tax forms. Just filling in the form to submit your taxes online you are being required to provide more personal information such as the mortgage loan/holder on your property.

    • ghostsniper January 12, 2022, 7:20 AM

      The whole IRS process this year is going to be an incredible mess.
      Expect to be victimized.

    • Jack January 12, 2022, 7:37 AM

      Your’s is the most truthful and accurate comment. The IRS is the contemporary of the SD and the SS of early 20th century Germany, comprised of the most ruthless, demonic, disgusting and uncompromising thugs on the planet since Ernst Rohm and Reinhard Heydrich and that single organization wields more threatening power than any other in this country.

      And it is fed and propped up by our feckless Senate and Congress whose members live without term limits or any possibility of repercussion from their generous stupidity, assistance and approval of the power of the IRS.

      • Mike Austin January 13, 2022, 6:42 AM

        The ruling elites of the US are the most corrupt, the most depraved, the most degenerate, the most venal, in all of History. They will never—ever—surrender their power. They will never—ever—give up their pedophilia. They will never—ever—regard any restrictions upon their behavior. Awash in foreign money, drunk on unlimited power, reveling in arrogance, protected by a Praetorian media, immune to all threats of removal, they are as a spreading cancer on the body of America—and the world.

        • Vanderleun January 13, 2022, 8:04 AM

          “. . . protected by a Praetorian media.”

          And even more protected by a Praetorian Guard in the classical sense.

          • Mike Austin January 13, 2022, 1:16 PM

            True that. That is the real reason behind the FBI, the CIA, the NSA, the ATF, the DOJ and a host of other 3-letter agencies : to protect those in power from the people. Perhaps Janissaries would work just as well, as these were chosen when they were boys by the Ottoman elites. They’re only job was to serve the Sultan. The benefits they got for doing so were extraordinary. Kind of like going to Harvard and moving to Washington DC.

            I would prefer though the term Securitate:

            “By 1951, the Securitate’s staff had increased fivefold, while in January 1956, the Securitate had 25,468 employees. At its height, the Securitate employed some 11,000 agents and had half a million informers for a country with a population of 22 million by 1985. Under Ceaușescu, the Securitate was one of the most brutal secret police forces in the world, responsible for the arrests, torture and deaths of thousands of people.”

            Sounds familiar. Of course, in the end it did not matter, for in spite of the Securitate Ceaușescu proved in his flesh the worth of the saying, “Sic semper tryannis!”

  • Joan of Argghh! January 12, 2022, 7:07 AM

    I wrote this after yet another school shooting in the U.S., after yet another sick politician mounted up on the stack of dead children to decry guns:
    “Every survivor now grieving knows the hollowness of “honest talk” about gun control. If they’d had a gun at that moment, they would have owned the conversation and the outcome.
    Upworthy wants it to wring my heart with tears of impotent rage, and wishes that a Unicorn could make all the guns disappear.
    See the sad face in the picture? Were she my child, she would know beyond any doubt, any law, or any “honest” rhetoric that I have no vision of strewing a street corner with flowers and candles in her memory but would destroy ANYthing that sought to make her one.”

  • patvann January 12, 2022, 10:33 AM

    The best article written about that horrid event

    • Roy January 15, 2022, 10:50 AM

      Paywall. Did not read.

  • Yaacov ben Moshe January 12, 2022, 1:41 PM

    As the brother of a childhood suicide (he was 13 – I was 9) and the father of a son with a genetic tumor disorder (neurofibromatosis) that has caused him to have 23 surgeries in his 22 years of life (the first one that was life-threatening came when he was 10), I was deeply moved by this.

    I have raised 6 altogether – the score is 3 natural by my first wife, 1 stepchild with my second wife, and 2 adopted from Ukraine. the boy with the tumor disorder was one of the Ukraine kids- a pair of biological brothers. We got them when they were 4 and 5 years old. The tumors were already in evidence in the older boy so we knew what we were up against. Still, nothing prepares you for the hours in the waiting room, the shock of seeing your child lying in recovery with bandages oozing with red and brown stains, and the raw wonder when he springs out of bed a few days later and shrugs the whole thing off. It’s miraculous.

    People, on hearing our story, sometimes fawn over us and struggle to find ways to express admiration for us. I feel sorry for those people because what they are telling us is that they don’t think they would do what we do. Notice I don’t say, “Be able to do what we do”- but would. They are as children.

    It does dovetail with the time that is coming when you are called to stand up for what you know is right. If you believe in God and know in your heart that God created us to be free and live by his commandments, it is not brave or, even, foolhardy to stand and fight for that.

    As a Jew, I was brought up with the stories of the Maccabees and the other heroes and heroines that have stood up over the ages. As a child I wondered how not bowing down to an idol or refusing to renounce one’s faith as all those heroic ancestors did would be possible for me, as fond as I am of living. I am not a child anymore.

    • Mike Seyle January 12, 2022, 2:01 PM

      Thank you for that, Yaacov. Your comment is one of the many reasons I have culled my readings to this site and a few others. While Gerard plants the seed, the commenters grow the plant. I would hope the bad actors who monitor this exceptional place would search their souls and come on over, but I guess they have bills to pay. The devil will collect.

      • Mike Austin January 13, 2022, 6:46 AM

        The Devil always collects. In full. No one enters his kingdom except by choice. His followers throw themselves into his realm singing, dancing and playing tambourines. There will be surprises.

  • GP January 15, 2022, 4:44 AM

    I thought you’d want to know there’s an error in the first link in your opening NOTE. It’s got a word at the end that turns into this:
    which fails. This does open:
    Thanks for the article — how quickly we forget.

    • Vanderleun January 15, 2022, 6:03 AM

      Thank you. Fixed.

  • Askjei January 15, 2022, 5:09 PM

    The entire history of the Abraham religions. Butchery, slaughter and enslavement. They wrote the playbook for modern Marxists. History shows their deceipt!

    • Mike Austin January 16, 2022, 10:26 AM

      Have you ever heard of Xanax? Or spelling? Or comparative theology? Or Marxist political theory?

  • mike January 15, 2022, 8:02 PM

    Let us prepare for the inevitable. Events are moving rapidly. The curtain has been pulled back.
    I’m an old man and I’ve seen glimpses of this coming for most of my life. A prelude of political theater, deceit, and naked lawlessness. It is all very clear, in retrospect.
    I don’t speak of it often, but I believe it, (even though I do allow myself the occasional moment of hopefulness.)
    Once begun, there will be no half measures.
    Do good while you still can.