THE FOLLOWING STORIES HAVE BEEN PUBLISHED IN VARIOUS LITERARY MAGAZINES
THE FOLLOWING STORIES HAVE BEEN PUBLISHED IN VARIOUS LITERARY MAGAZINES
THE SIGNS OF LOVE
Published in Karamu Spring issue 2005
Published in Room of One’s Own Volume 27, 2005
Winner of Illinois Arts Council Literary Awards for 2006
Published in Quintessential Barrington July/August 2006
Whenever it rained on Sunday Oksana took me to the movies. There was little else to do in Villa Arroyo when it rained. Streets turned to mud, snakes poked heads out of tall grasses, and fuzzy creatures crawled out of tree trunks to drink rainwater. My mother was terrified of the rain. She always thought the arroyo--the creek just outside of town-- would overflow and seep into our house again, as it had one spring. So she insisted I stay home where it was safe. But she did let me go with Oksana, maybe because we traveled all the way to the city, far from the danger of flooding.
Oksana lived a few houses away, and her family was so close it felt as though we were related. Perhaps we were. Her parents, like mine, were post-war immigrants in Argentina and everyone back in Europe seemed to have common relations if the roots were traced far enough. Oksana was older, almost as old as my mother, but with her, I felt at ease, as though she were not an adult.
We walked quickly, my hand inside hers, the handle of the umbrella between us and the rain tumbling around us. We stepped carefully on the grass and over stones along the unpaved roads of Villa Arroyo until we got to the asphalt of Avenida Legiones. Here, when we had time, Oksana bought me ice cream in the little kiosk, and then we sat in the shelter of the station, waiting for the bus to Buenos Aires.
In the city, along the avenue lined with cinemas on both sides, we’d find a movie she liked. Usually, it was American but often French or Italian--and it was always a love story. I don’t remember most of them, but one has stayed with me; maybe because the leading lady looked a bit like Oksana. The movie was in black and white, with subtitles that disappeared too fast so I followed the frames but didn’t bother much with the reading. The story was simple--a prince and a peasant girl meet accidentally in the woods and fall in love. The prince was on horseback, the girl looked up at him and it was love at first sight. One could tell by the way their lips parted, their eyes opened wide. Throughout the entire movie, the lovers never came closer than in that first meeting, but in the end, they were together on their wedding day, rapturously kissing, while the music grew louder and they gently faded from view.
I used to think this is what love is. That last kiss when the screen faded into white was the final act in the lovers’ quest. What came before was only preparation, what came after, irrelevant.
I was practicing folding napkins the way Oksana had taught me. First into a rectangle, then a square, then the edges over and around until they stood like little cloth towers. It was my eighth birthday. Mother was busy in the kitchen, and she had given me the job of placing napkins in the center of each plate in the dining room. I heard her singing one of her happy songs and I was happy too because it was one of her good-mood days. When the last of the napkins stood perfectly erect, I went looking for Oksana.
It wasn’t just the napkins. Oksana taught me everything. I think she thought of me as the child she could have had. She was pretty and calm and always full of stories about the movies, the theater, the opera. When I was three years old and allowed to stay overnight with her and her parents, she’d take me to her bedroom--she called it a boudoir --and let me watch as she transformed herself. Her face became brighter, skin smoother, eyes bigger, as she traced the roundness of her cheeks with little dabs of liquid that looked like caffe latte.
“Here,” she said, “I’ll show you how pretty you’ll look someday.”
Then she doled out bits of magic, with a tiny drop on my forehead, a flicker of dark shadow on my lids. My favorite was the loose powder jar. It was shiny, embossed with dancing girls and when Oksana removed the puff, tiny white flecks flew round the room, scenting the air like fragrant thistle balls bouncing in the breeze. If you catch thistle balls, she said, remove the grains and grind them into flour, you can make bread. There is nothing in the entire world as wonderful as thistle flour bread.
“It’s better than manna,” she told me.
Oksana had books. Old, heavy, books with covers that smelled like boots and burnt leaves and pictures that told stories by themselves. But it was the mysterious curlicues, dashes, and lines I wondered about. It was just as when years later I would be at a party where everyone laughed and had a good time but when I joined they’d suddenly grow silent, and I’d have to guess what they were talking about. The writing mocked me and made me angry because I knew it hid secrets. I wanted the secrets. I wanted the words. My father’s books were heavy and had few pictures and he was too busy to explain.
I remember long before I started school, Oksana began teaching me to read. She opened one of her books and said--“This is the letter ‘S’. It makes a sound like a snake, ssss... Look here, it even twists itself like one.” She pointed to a large “S” in the book and followed its curve with the tip of her long red nail. Her hands were different from my mother’s. The fingers were slim and the nails always perfectly painted and long. My mother’s nails were short and the fingers stubby and creased, the inside of the pointing finger tinted with the blackness of potato peel and garden soil. When my mother touched my face, her touch was rough, almost like my father’s stubbly face in the morning.
My mother didn’t like books--she said they were full of lies and it was better to avoid them. She said history had been twisted, innocent people killed, nations destroyed because of what had been written in books.
“You’ll have plenty to read when you get to school,” she said. “In a few years, you’ll be sick of it all.”
Oksana’s hands were slow and soft as she guided my hand over the outline of each letter. “Here’s an ‘M’ standing like two mountains and in the center a ‘V’--that’s a valley between...” By the time I was four I was reading.
That day, when all the preparations were being made for my eighth birthday party, I finished setting the table and walked across the hall. I pushed the door open. “Oksana! Come, look at this!” I called out, anxious to show her how precisely I had folded the napkins.
She was sitting in the high-back chair facing away from me and my father was at her side, standing. His arm was behind her head and he was bending over her. Their faces were very close.
As soon as I walked in, my father took a step away from the chair, and Oksana stood up, brushed her skirt with one hand and tugged at the hem with the other. My father’s eyes were wide. He coughed, the kind of cough he had when he watched a sad movie. His Adam’s apple traveled up and down. He put his hand to his neck as if to straighten out a tie, but his shirt was unbuttoned and he wasn’t wearing one.
We stood, the three of us, frozen in that long moment. My father walked around me and out of the room. I hardly noticed he had left because I was looking at Oksana and the way she continued to fix her clothes. A moist strand of hair had tumbled over her forehead and she pushed it from her face. My throat tightened. Oksana looked blurred, the way my teacher looked when I was called on to recite in class and my glasses fogged up. She pulled me toward her and held me in her arms but didn’t say anything. All I heard was the steady, quick pounding of her heart against my cheek. I held her tight around the waist, pressed my forehead against her breasts, inhaled the fragrance of her perfume.
“What’s the matter, honey?” she asked, stroking my hair. “Why are you upset?”
“I don’t like it when you’re close to my Daddy,” I said.
“He was just getting something out of my eye. That’s all. Your father’s a doctor, he takes care of people. He was just taking care of my eye.”
She wiped my eyes with her handkerchief. She always carried white, embroidered handkerchiefs--perfectly folded, smelling of perfume, like her skin.
“You dear sweetheart,” she said, hugging me again. “Would I ever do anything to hurt you?”
“No,” I murmured. “I don’t think so.”
I believed her--I wanted to. But deep inside I had some doubts because I kept my eye on them from then on watching for signs, for moments alone, for anything that would let me know there was something between them. Even when I was in high school, each time I saw my father near Oksana, I remembered that day. They never gave me any more reasons to suspect them, though--I can see that now--I secretly wished they would.
As I grew up, Mother became more peculiar. I never knew what to expect from her. I learned to listen to her songs--they told me what mood she was in. But later, her songs became less predictable--the jolly tunes mingled with the melancholy ones to form one continuous wailing melody--piercingly sad, like laughter mingling with tears. She was full of hate for everything in her past. She hated what the Communists had done to her nation, she hated the war, hated being one of the discarded nation-less wanderers in South America, hated not knowing about her family back in Ukraine. She refused to learn Spanish and got by on the merest fraction of knowledge, dependent on my father or Oksana’s family or on any other countrymen in town. Eventually, she lay in bed almost every day and I’d find her among crumpled covers, a cloth over her eyes, blinds drawn, the room stale and hot like a foul tropical paradise.
“Mama, do you want me to bring you some water?”
She put her hands on her head and I saw that they were covered with writing. Circles, lines, strange animal shapes covered the backs of her hands and arms and I knew one of the curanderas had been there while I was at school. Some of these faith healers--counterfeit medicine women, my father called them--braided her hair with grasses and herbs, smeared her forehead with coffee grounds, and lit smelly candles. Every time she had a headache she called one of these women. She would not even allow me in the room.
“Go away.” she moaned. “Leave me alone.”
She pulled up the covers over her head. I knew what that meant. She would stay in the room for the rest of the day and into the night and even my father’s gentle words would not help.
“Just leave your mother alone,” he told me. “She’ll get out of it in her own way.”
In the evening my father and I sat at the supper table eating a simple dinner of potatoes and sausage. We hardly spoke and when we did, it was in a low voice, to not disturb Mother.
My father didn’t talk much anymore. When I was little, before I started school, he used to be jolly. I rode on his shoulders as he walked from house to house in Villa Arroyo. He carried his black medicine bag in one hand and held me with the other around one of my legs as we went to see neighbors who were sick that day. I loved the smell of his bag--the comforting mixture of old leather and medicine. Sometimes he even whistled a tune.
Often Oksana joined us on these walks. She worked in Buenos Aires and my father would pass by her house and we’d go with her to the bus station. He slowed his pace and they talked quietly about his childhood in Ukraine, about his younger brother who disappeared during the war, about his parents--my grandparents--whom I had never met, about wanting to be a doctor since he was seven years old. I learned more about his past during these walks than at any other time.
From the perch of his shoulders, I looked down at Oksana’s head and watched the glints appear and reappear in her hair. She had golden hair. Actually it was silver indoors, but outside in the bright sunlight, it looked like her golden powder jar. It was my dream to have hair like that when I grew up. I wondered if that could ever happen since my mother’s hair was black and my father’s white, though in the old photographs it was also dark. My own hair was a strange brown--the color of mud in the middle of summer when no rain had fallen for weeks. But it had been different when I was a baby. The proof was in a hatbox in Mother’s closet. There, wrapped in a piece of silk, lay a tiny strand of hair, soft and pale, shimmery as cotton candy--my hair before it was shaved.
“It’s very important,” Mother explained. “You must remove all the baby hair so the permanent hair comes in good and strong. It’s just a pity your hair turned dark. We can never predict what will happen. But if you don’t do it, the hair will grow weak and very thin.”
My hair was still thin, and worst of all, it wasn’t blond anymore.
Gradually, as my mother’s moods shifted more often, my father began to change too. I could no longer go with him on his morning rounds when I started school, although I sometimes joined him in the evening or on Saturday. He grew somber and quiet and we walked apart, his black bag between us. We were both thinking about Mother--we never knew what to expect from her--but neither of us ever spoke directly about her. When we sat together at dinner, my father and I, we knew she was just beyond the door, hiding under the covers in the bedroom, and we kept silent.
Sometimes, without warning, Mother would appear in the doorway. Smiling, as though everything was fine, she’d come over to the table and kiss my father on the forehead.
“What kind of supper is this?” she’d say. “You should have waited for me. What would this family do without me?”
She’d put on her apron and begin slicing onions, garlic, tomatoes. My father never argued with her. Long after I had gone to bed I could smell the meal she prepared and hear the rustling of forks and spoons as the two of them sat down to eat. During those late-night suppers she seemed calm and cheerful and I lay in bed and prayed that she would be that way all the time.
Once, while my father and I were eating, my mother suddenly burst into the kitchen. She was naked--the only time in my life I had seen my mother totally nude. Her large breasts hung like deflated balloons and her pubic hair was thick and black, like the hair on her head.
“Take me away! Take me away!” she screamed and my father jumped from his chair and ran toward her, shielding her.
He grasped her wrists and pulled her to him and she yanked her arms and kicked him with her bare feet. Her breathing was heavy and she made a low, humming sound. She broke away from him and dashed across the kitchen, past the table where I had pressed myself into a chair. My father ran after her and caught her just as she put her hand on the handle of the front door.
“No...No!” she shrieked “Let me go! I know you don’t want me!”
She continued screaming as he gathered her in his arms, covered her as though he were a blanket. He turned to me and I saw he was frightened too.
“Go to your room. I’ll handle this,” he said. I was shaking and got up as quickly as possible and went to my bedroom. I stayed there the rest of the night crying, even after my mother quieted down and all I heard were her soft sobs and then nothing.
Oksana came to our house the next day and stayed with my mother. While I was getting ready for school I heard the two of them talking in the bedroom. I couldn’t make out what they were saying except for the mention of my father’s name a few times. Soon my mother grew quiet and I only heard Oksana’s mellow voice, like the murmur of the arroyo in autumn, and it soothed me. When I returned from school my mother and Oksana were sitting, drinking tea, and the sweet smell of fresh churros floated through the kitchen. My mother was dressed in clean clothes, her hair combed, not a trace of writing on her hands. She smiled at me when I walked in and planted a noisy kiss on my cheek.
Our neighbors knew something was wrong. Sometimes, when I was at a store or in church, women took my chin into their hands and spoke softly to me. They asked about my father, how he was getting on, and called me a “sweet child.” It seemed to me that these women were waiting for my mother to disappear so they could grab my father for themselves, and even though I hated the way my mother was, I hated them more. I clenched my teeth and pretended to smile.
Kids sneaked by our house and peeked in the window trying to catch a glimpse of my mother. When she saw them she would begin screaming at them in Ukrainian-- “Cholera, psia kref!” May you be afflicted with cholera, blood of dogs! Although they didn’t understand the words, they knew what she meant. The kids wanted her reaction and laughed as they ran away. Some of the older ones turned to my mother and screamed back: “Polaca demente!”-- “mad Polack.” Anyone from Eastern Europe was polaco. Then, when my father came home, my mother would be crying and cursing.
“I want to leave this place, I hate it!” she said again and again.
When I was thirteen, a large envelope was delivered and my mother asked me to open it. It was a document from the American government giving us permission to emigrate to the United States. When I told my mother what it was, she began to cry and then laugh.
“Oh, this is good! This is good!” she kept repeating. “Now we will finally leave this cursed place!”
My parents had put in an application to emigrate and had been waiting for the approval for several years. Everyone wanted to go to North America--it was the place where everybody succeeded. But when my father came home and my mother ran to him waving the paper and saying “We can leave! We can leave!” his face did not light up. Instead he took the paper from her hands, quickly read it and then sat at the table without a word.
“Aren’t you happy?” my mother said. “You can finally leave this stupid, ignorant town and practice your profession in the U.S.!”
“Yes, of course, of course,” he ran his fingers through his hair. “you don’t have to tell me. I know there is no future here, not for us, not for her.” he continued,
pointing in my direction. “But still, we’ve been here for so long. Our neighbors... our friends... Won’t you miss them?”
“The only thing I ever miss is what the war took away from me--my family and my youth,” my mother said.
He went to her and embraced her and she put her face in his chest and began to cry. I had seen my mother cry so many times without reason that I wasn’t surprised, but then I saw my father crying softly along with her. I thought of Oksana and I suddenly felt so sad I had to go outside.
Oksana came to see us off at the airport. She was wearing a trench coat and a gray scarf over her hair. The day had started with a drizzle, but then the rain began to beat down on the slanted windows of the hangar and we had to wait a long time until it stopped and the runway was ready for take-off. My two best friends were there too and I spent my time talking excitedly to them. We kept making promises to write to each other forever and to visit as soon as we had enough money. I didn’t pay much attention to anyone else until the final good-byes.
When it was time to leave, Oksana embraced me so hard I couldn’t breathe and then she let me go and I picked up my bag and walked after my mother. I looked back one last time and I saw Oksana standing with her left arm extended before her and her right hand in a tight fist above her heart. My father had stopped a few feet from her and faced her in the same position. The airport was full of people--men and women walked past them hurrying forward--but at that moment I had a keen sense of the two of them being completely isolated, somehow united in spite of the commotion around them. They stood like that--mirror images of each other--for a brief instant and then my father turned and followed my mother and me.
Published by Evening Street Press Review, No 11, Autumn 2014
SOME SUNDAY MORNING
Ever since I was a little girl, growing up in a village outside Buenos Aires,
I was haunted by an old Ukrainian story. I often heard it from my mother in a
traditional song, her way of keeping intact the strings that tied her to her family
and her homeland. A past she and my father lost during the war.
Oh, do not go young man to the evening revels
For you’ll find the girls there are bewitching devils.
And the one with eyebrows most charming and dark
Knows every spell and will make you her mark.
She dug for herbs on Sunday
She rinsed them clean on Monday
She boiled the brew on Tuesday
And poisoned him on Wednesday
I listened and pictured a forest, a cauldron over an open fire and a young
woman stirring the contents that she would feed to the unwitting young man.
My imagination became dark and thick as did my eyebrows when I turned from
childhood to adolescence. What had the young man done to deserve death?
I did not find the answer until I was old enough to read the book written by
Olga Kobylianska, and then I read and re-read it time and again. The book’s Ukrainian title—V nediliu rano zillia kopala—means On Sunday morning she dug for herbs.
Olga Kobylianska was born in the southwestern region of Ukraine called Bukovina, land of birches. The land lies at the foot of the Carpathian Mountains which run across Ukraine’s western border and separate it from Poland, Slovakia, Romania, Hungary and Moldavia. When Kobylianska described the scenery in her novel—a remote village bordered by a cold stream rumbling from Chabanyza Mountain, trees coming down from the top in thick rows, narrow passes bordered by grassy cliffs and a forest of white birches—it was like visiting a familiar spot.
My father was born not too far from here, in a village among firs and birches, in the shadow of a mountain. When he told me about his childhood, his hikes through the mountains and valleys, he spoke with such passion that I felt I was walking with him. I could see the craggy mountain passes, smell the lush grasses on birch forest floors and hear the distant mournful sound of the trembita—a giant wooden horn used by shepherds.
More of Kobylianska’s novel touched on the familiar. Into a remote village at the foot of mount Chabanyzia, a band of gypsies arrived one day. The elders of the village worried about these “dark visitors,” whose ancient sin doomed them to roam the earth forever. Legend told how gypsies had denied shelter to Joseph and Mary on their flight through Egypt. God cursed them and turned them into eternal wanderers. In the story, the villagers only granted the gypsies permission to stay a few days.
Something about gypsies fascinated me, touched a deep secret in my gut. Perhaps it was my own rootlessness, and a gnawing sense of doom. Perhaps it was my fascination with our Romanian friend Madame Azha, a frequent visitor and a fortune reader. Perhaps it was my father’s childhood stories about an old man, a Moldavian blind gypsy who played the violin at funerals. I liked their darkness, their mystery, their otherness. It made me feel less of an outsider in a land where I did not feel I belonged.
On the second night of the gypsies’ stay, an uproar began. Mavra, the beautiful dancer, young wife of voivode Radhu—the gypsy leader—gave birth. When Mavra’s mother and the other women attendants shrieked on seeing the blond head, the secret Mavra carried for nine months was exposed. She had fallen in love with a nobleman who had come to the gypsy camp for weeks to watch Mavra’s performance. He showered her with coins after each dance, his eyes burning with a blue flame. Finally, in the shadow of the mountain, in the fields between the town and the camp, he became her lover. He was so different than Rahdu. She feared and respected her husband but there had never been love, and no child. Night after night in their tent, Rahdu took her with a desperation palpable on his moist skin. But with her lover, the desperation was Mavra’s. Amid fragrant high grasses she gave herself fully to a man whom she truly did not know. Then he disappeared into the night on his elegant white horse and she never saw him again.
This was powerful stuff for a nine year old, and the story held me in a vice. What did I know then of giving up body or soul to a man?
Nothing could mollify Rahdu’s anger, not even the pleas of Mavra’s mother or Andronati, Mavra’s father, elders of the gypsy clan.
“Kill the bitch and her white whelp,” Rahdu yelled again and again in the circle of men around a bonfire. He strutted among them, threw fistfuls of gold coins for any man who would carry out the deed. It was not easy to accept such a task. The men were torn between their sympathies for their leader and the great respect they felt for the woman’s father—the elder Andronati. They sat motionless, heads down. Finally Andronati stood up.
“Listen to me, everyone,” he said. “My daughter has sinned and must be punished. If not by us today, then someday by the god who is above us all.”
He walked toward the voivide and faced him.
“My wife gave birth only once, and it was a daughter. When you married Mavra, you became the son I always wanted.”
The old man put his arms about the young leader and embraced him hard.
“I love you as my own child,” Andronati said, his voice breaking. “Why stain your hands with death, Rahdu? Leave her to her maker.”
“And what is to be of the white dog?” rasped Rahdu.
“Let me take them both away. The child is doomed by his white skin—you’d tear him to pieces if he remained among you.”
His voice broke again and he continued in a whisper.
“He is better off dead, he belongs neither to our world nor outside—”
I identified with this child. I did not feel part of any world. Here I was, in a small village on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, born in Europe in a refugee camp, of parents whose homeland I had never seen, only heard about. Who was I? And into this murky whirlpool another rock had recently been tossed.
One day, in the spring of 1956, a few months before I turned ten, my father received a letter from Ukraine. My parents had been trying to contact their families behind the Iron Curtain ever since they had arrived in Argentina. It was not as simple as writing to them back home—under the Soviet Union’s demonic leader Stalin, anything seen as anti-Communist was a potential death warrant. To have family in the West, was tantamount to treason, communication with those abroad was suicide. It was better to assume they were dead, erase their existence, never to speak of them again. When Nikita Kruschev became the new Soviet leader in 1955, after Stalin’s death, he ushered in an ostensibly less repressive era. It became barely possible to make contact with families back home.
When the letter from my father’s sister Natalie arrived, there was a big commotion. My parents read the letter together and cried as they found out about the deaths of loved ones. My mother’s parents had died a few years before without ever finding out what happened to their youngest child—my mother. Till the end, one of the sisters said, they held to the belief that their Olychka, was alive somewhere. The last time they had seen her was a few days before the beginning of the war, they knew nothing of her capture and move westward. My father learned about his brother—slaughtered by the Bolsheviks during a massacre of students at the university. He was only nineteen.
The sadness lingered with us after this news. But something else in the letter came out in bits and pieces weeks after its arrival. My parents spoke in hushed tones, my mother appeared distressed, sometimes she cried.
I began to put the pieces together. It was something about another woman. Something about a wife left behind. No, my father kept repeating in a whisper—it’s in the past, there was no love, you are the only one for me. And so I created a new life story for myself. The other woman, my father’s first wife must have been my mother. That explained my feelings of not fitting in, it explained the lack of documentation for my birth. There was no birth certificate for me, my parents said, it had been lost. It explained what I perceived as my mother’s preference for my younger brother. Of course, he was her legitimate son, I was the adopted child of some strange woman left behind in Ukraine. A dark-haired beauty with thick eyebrows.
On the third night after the child’s birth, Andronati laced wine with a sleeping potion, and passed the drink to all. He gave some to Mavra as well. And then, when everyone had drifted into heavy sleep, he placed his drugged daughter and grandchild on a horse, and took them away.
Far from the village stood a lone house behind a neat picket fence, surrounded by flowering trees. It was the home of a wealthy landowner and his wife—childless for many years. Andronati placed the infant on the front steps, chanted a few magic words, then bent down and kissed his grandson on the forehead. He mounted his horse again and sped away with Mavra. From the distance he saw a light go on in the house and someone opened the door to the crying child. On the other side of the mountain, in another village, Andronati left sleeping Mavra in the garden of a widow with a baby girl. The following morning when he returned, the gypsies took up camp and left.
When I was twelve, I thought it would be nice to share the story with my friends in school. I began translating the book into Spanish, page by page. I was probably about half of the way done when my life changed again. In 1959, my parents received notice that their application to emigrate to the US had been approved. This was not pleasant news for me. I had begun to feel a part of Argentine society, the old feelings of reclusiveness seemed to have ameliorated, I wanted to stay. But in 1960 my parents sold their house and all their possessions and the four of us—my parents, my brother and I—left Argentina forever to move to the United States. The translation of the book was forgotten for a long time.
When Mavra woke up groggy in the garden, she knew she had been abandoned. She wailed for her parents and her child, she tore her hair and scratched her face in anguish. The widow found her and took her in. For a time Mavra roamed the village and countryside in search of her band of gypsies, she inquired about an infant boy. The only information was that the gypsies had taken up camp and disappeared. No one knew anything about a child. In time, like a wounded animal, Mavra staggered back to the one person who had been kind to her—the widow. She settled down and became companion, servant and a second mother to the widow’s little girl Tatyana. And watched her grow into a beautiful young girl.
I never felt beautiful growing up. I was too skinny, my nose was too long; everything was out of sorts. I dreamed of turning into a swan someday, a femme fatale like Tatyana.
For many years I forgot about Tatyana, Mavra and the gypsies. As I grew up it became clear that my ideas of not being my mother’s daughter were just a childhood fantasy. The other woman—my father’s first wife—was childless.
I moved on with life—married, had children, dabbled in writing. And then one day I found the old book in some forgotten box and read it again. All my memories came flooding back, and once again I began to translate. This time into English.
Mavra’s son, whom the farmers adopted and named Hryz—the Ukrainian nickname for Gregory—and Tatyana, were growing up only miles away from each other, separated by mount Chabanyza. Mavra had turned all her pent up love to Tatyana and the little girl grew up with two mothers. But when Tatyana was fifteen, Mavra’s begged the widow to allow her to live apart, high on the mountain.
“Go with God,” the widow told her. “If you wish to live alone I can’t stop you. Come help me out once in a while, that’s all you need to do.”
Every Sunday, Tatyana took the long walk with a basket of provisions to Mavra’s small hut. She helped Mavra gather tubers and herbs that would become magic potions to cure ills and turn sadness into joy. In the winter, as the fire crackled, they broke off stems and crushed dried leaves, placed the different plants into separate sacks. Tatyana inhaled the mix of strange, powerful scents. She learned the ancient skills of enchantment.
On the other side of Chabanyza, Hryz had grown up too. He was a wild young man, always clashing with his adoptive parents, always running off on horseback, sometimes for days. The only calming factor was a lovely neighbor girl, Nastya, and a strange visitor. Once, when Hryz was a young boy, he had met an old gypsy man and they struck up a friendship. The gypsy continued to return each year at the time of the boy’s birthday with a gift and stories of his travels. When Hryz was eighteen he was betrothed to Nastya and their wedding was set for the following spring.
We all know what is to come, strange coincidences that bring people together, more likely to happen in reality than fiction. One Sunday Hryz rode his horse through the forest on Chabanyza, when suddenly dark-haired Tatyana walked into his path. He fell under her spell. And she fell in love with him; heart and soul. Again and again they met in the forest, and loved each other. They were two fire creatures and they loved as hard as they fought, their passion bordered on cruelty. Hryz was in love with Tatyana but his betrothal to Nastya weighed heavy on his heart. She was the kindest person he had ever met, she loved him completely, she was docile as a lamb. In the end, he did what he felt was right—he told Tatyana he had to let her go. He said their love was doomed, the curse of many would fall on them if he reneged on his promise to Nastya.
Hryz mounted his horse and galloped into the forest. Tatyana turned and ran to Mavra’s hut in the woods.
I also loved as powerfully as Tatyana and believed words of love. Like Tatyana I was betrayed. A betrayal by someone you love is a kind of death. It is the death of the present, the future, but worst of all it’s a death of your past. Because all that you have experienced, all the joys you may have had are negated by the betrayal. You cannot even trust your memory.
“Oh, Mavra, I will die without him!” Tatyana cried.
She had wrapped herself around Mavra’s knees, sobbing desperately. Mavra wept too watching the pain of the girl she loved.
“Don’t say that, you’re strong and beautiful. There will be another who will love you true.”
“No!“ Tatyana screamed. “I don’t want another. Hryz is the only one for me.”
“Your fate is sealed, my child,” Mavra whispered. “There will be no happiness with Hryz for you.”
“Please help me Mavra,” Tatyana moaned.
“I will try my dearest, I will try,” said the gypsy. She pulled Tatyana up to her and wiped the girl’s tears.
“There is an herb,” she began in a soothing voice. “There’s an herb that grows under the white stone. It can bring back what was before.”
“Can it make him love me again?”
“Perhaps, my dearest. We can try,” Mavra said. “But we must be oh, so careful. This herb is a powerful plant. Just enough must be given, never too much. Even a horse can die from ingesting too much.”
It was Sunday, a few weeks before the wedding. Late in the night Mavra and Tatyana went into the forest. They pushed the white stone aside and pulled the herb that grew beneath it by its roots. They laid it out to dry in the sun, ground the leaves and roots, added water from the spring and made a potion. On Wednesday before the wedding Tatyana went to see Hryz with two glasses to make a toast.
“Here,” she said, pouring wine into both glasses. “I come with forgiveness and wishes for happiness in your new life.”
Hryz took the glass and they made a toast. And then he drank.
When Thursday came he was found dead,
Laid on Friday into his earthly bed
Saturday everyone discovered the sin,
Oh sweet child why did you poison him?
And so I shall I tell you—he had no pity on me
He said I was his lover but another one loved he.
I will not let her have him if he cannot be mine,
Cold earth alone will hold him till the end of time.
Andronati had come for the wedding, but instead of celebrating, he saw his grandson laid to rest. Mavra and her father were reunited on that fateful day and she then found out she had killed her own son. The curse of long ago had come to pass—God will punish, if not now, then later. Nothing she could have done would have saved her from her fate.
There is still another version.
In this one, I am Tatyana, crazed by the betrayal. Madness takes over, and in my vision of the world my lover cannot be with another. My love makes a leap and in a flash turns to hate.
I read about lethal plants and learn how to extract their poison. But it is winter and all the plants are asleep like one enchanted beneath the snow. Then spring arrives and the narcissus blooms in every garden. I pull one out by the roots, grind it with mortar and pestle and create a deadly paste. Then some Sunday morning, when I know he is away, I will let myself into his house. There is an open bottle on his night stand. I pull apart one of the large capsules—horse pills—he liked to call them. I empty the contents into the sink, spread the narcissus paste inside the empty vial and put it back in the bottle. I do it quickly, efficiently, with vinyl gloves to leave no trace. And then I leave, and wait.
There you are my lover, this is what I’ve done
For this I shall be punished and will live alone.
But for you my lover, here is your reward
Your eternal dwelling—eeach side a wooden board.
In this alternate universe’s version, the poison fails. My lover does not die. And all I am left with is the futility of vengeance gone awry.