The sprocket holes of the film negative bleed white smears into the frame, as if somewhere at the bottom of the camera a pinhole had let light in. But that Ukrainian glass was sound, and the mechanism worked as designed. It took in light, even light that the eyes could not see, and which passed through the rubber light seals around the film door. Atomic radiation soaked into photosensitive emulsion in the same manner that it would seep into tissue and organs. Those exposed would never know, until like the photograph in its chemical bath, the burns began to appear.
In that hazy photograph taken on the rooftop of the power station outside a small Northern Ukrainian town, men covered in lead-lined suits are silhouetted against a white sky. Their feet are obscured by light emanating from chunks of graphite and nuclear fuel they had been sent to remove. I read that they had only sixty seconds before another team would rush from the shelter of a nearby stairwell to replace them. In sixty seconds they had taken in a lifetime’s worth of radiation. For three months, after the circuitry of their radio-controlled machines had been fried, these “Bio—Robots” as they were designated, cleared away innocuous looking pieces of rock so radioactive more than a few minute’s exposure would be fatal. Most of the men would die in the following years.
The ghost of their killer can only be seen in the corners of photographs, as it is caught eating away at the grain of the cellulose acetate of the film. Everything would have seemed normal then. The fires were out; the wind was soft and warm in the summertime; the bustle of workers and the cleanup crews might have seemed comforting. Only from the frantic crackling of a Geiger counter could anyone tell that the soil they walked on was poison.
I imagine the place is quiet now. I have seen photographs of the Excursion Zone; photographs of rotting villages and Eastern Orthodox churchyards littered with elk tracks. Rain fell on the rooftop and washed away the footprints of the Bio-Robots. The radiation began to fade into air, as the men faded into obituaries in newspapers all over the region. Only through a handful of distorted photographs is the motion of that summer remembered. In stillness the men seem ancient.
However, only nine years after the photo of the Bio-Robots was taken, I was born. Nine years later, and most of the men captured in it were dead. In a little known image they are preserved like the trees surrounding the power station, which were turned red by the radiation and died. Faceless and nameless, the men on the rooftop seem to be frozen in a time that could never have existed. Their lives were quietly snuffed out and their irradiated tissue was tucked away like burial shrouds hidden deep within the mountains.
The great Sarcophagus hangs heavy over the reactor now, steel and concrete lifted up to contain what there is no hope of ever fixing. The land will be uninhabitable for 20,000 years. The timescale is staggering, as atomic particles will roam that patch of earth well beyond when I am forgotten and exist only in photographs, till they themselves dissolve to pulp. But Reactor #4 and her quietly crackling breath which fell across Europe will live on.
In 20,000 years, something might walk that patch of earth as it once was again. I wonder if they will know its name. Will they remember the peeling mosaics of churches, the piles of ruined books in crumbling schools, and the unfinished rusting fairground? Will they touch the Elephant’s Foot? Running hands for the first time upon the frozen molten form which once burned its way to the basement of the reactor, and now sits still in the dark? Today, it would kill you in ten minutes flat if you stood too close.
But would they remember the Bio-Robots? Does anyone now? I cannot find even one of their names. I have only ever seen the photograph that held them once. They have since returned to the atomic particles that led to growths under the skin. That same force is in the forests now, in the trees beyond the Red, which still grow. It is in the skin of the elk and the wolves that returned to the soiled earth. They had been gone for a century, and yet in our wake returned in less than a decade
Where the radiation touched the film in that photograph, the world was lost, as the rest of the image slowly appeared in the phenidone and sodium carbonate solution. The photo had taken a toll from its exposure, as did the men. But most of all, the land itself took the heaviest. An entire layer of topsoil was removed throughout the region to try to clean up the fallout. Creatures as far as Scotland were culled en masse because of the radioactive particles they had absorbed from the grass they ate. The excursion zone is a feeble attempt to say the breath of Reactor #4 is contained.
We considered the disaster a knockout blow that could potentially outlive humanity itself. But in the trees, and in the flanks of the elk, and in the small creatures that rummage through ruined apartments, the land did us one better. Though I might walk through the excursion zone, I cannot linger. To linger in Chernobyl is to be rendered still. Yet despite the warning sings and chain link fence, the woods are alive. Trees and vines wind through broken stained glass windows in churches, while walls and ceilings cave in from the rain. The diversity of life in the Excursion Zone is greater then it was before the disaster. In that patch of Ukraine where no lights turn on at night, and where men slowly lost their lives to a sickness growing beneath their skin, the memory of their sacrifice is only a plight on the land. The scar slowly fades like the damaged emulsion of the photographic paper under red light. The paper will in time disintegrate, the walls rot, the cement crumble. Even the radiation, only on the second decade of its remaining two thousand, will eventually cease to rest in the blood of the creatures of that place. We could not kill them. In the end, the fires of Reactor #4 proved we were only really capable of killing ourselves.