This is a cluster of short stories that were prototypes of what grew into the novel ZO which was published two years ago and a finalist for the Kobzar Award in Toronto last spring (2010).
The stories are their own worlds. Some of the material made it into the final cut of the novel and some didn't. But they still stand on their own as "literary photo images" of life and there remains strength and beauty and tragedy in them.
I offer them to you. If you've read ZO, you will notice some similarities, some divergences, some might-have-beens.
They are images, as I've said.
Small, colourful frescoes against a neutral wall or background.
To read well is a gift and a skill. And where would writers be without wise readers?
May you read well.
When she would think back many years later, after she herself
had become old, spending whole days in her armchair watching the
television, she could not recall her parents except as black and
grey images. She did not know if this was because of the
photographs. It seemed to her it could not just be the
photographs. For some of those were brown. Yellow. But her
youngest nephew had looked at the pictures and decided that grey
was the colour of the past.
Mother had been narrow. White-scarved. A silence. She had
never learned English. She had not wanted to. She could not have
been a stupid woman. Her children had become accountants and
teachers and nurses and priests. Father could not have formed all
that on his own. Later Mother had grown plump, her arms and legs
and waist white and soft and round. But her face remained sturdy
as wood. Her grandchildren whispered she was a witch with her
sharp nose, her headscarf, her bent back, her wrinkles, her
sweaters and dresses and her cane, her mutterings in another
language, as if she were uttering black spells. Thank God she had
never known what the children thought. Her rosary and icons. Her
faith as dark and substantial as soil.
But what did she understand about her Mother? Who had ever
talked with their mothers in those days the way children spoke
with them on the television shows? As one good friend to another?
When the two of them spoke it might be about clothes, or when to
begin cooking supper, or about a neighbour. She had been gentle.
Moving about in the dark of their illnesses. A smell of flour and
dill and soap exuding from her dress and her skin. Pressing
fingers to her children’s fevered cheeks. Mother had been young
when her daughters and sons were growing up, only in her twenties,
straight and black, slipping through mind and distance now in a
ballet, a woman who had milked cows and threshed grain as a girl.
She had been young. But none of this could be recalled. Her limbs
must have been thin. Her stomach flat. Her hair would have been
long and rich as furrows of earth when she brushed it. But where
was her face? There were no photographs of her youth. Nor of her
Father’s. Both were locked in limp flesh. Greying hair. Lines.
Fadings. Yes, stubborn and iron-willed to the end. But weary. You
could see the weakness settling in back of the dark eyes and the
foreheads and the ridges of bone.
Why did you come?
The words had darted from her mouth one morning, moving so
quickly and so startling her, they must have been pressing for
escape for months, years. The city was under snow. She was in her
chair. On the television screen, in black and white, was a
commercial. Her Mother’s photograph was on top of the television
set. Along with one of her Father in his open coffin. And a shiny
green vase of yellow plastic flowers placed upon an intricate
white doily. She had the heat on too high and she was dozing.
Suddenly she was staring into her Mother’s sturdy face and the
words sprang unwilled from her chest and throat. She woke, so that
she heard her own words clearly, and she glanced hastily about her
apartment, to be sure no one was visiting.
Mother had come because of him. Yes. She had been strong. She
had stood up to Father. Especially when it came to her children.
Or the old country. But she came with him. All her life she missed
the apple trees, she missed the cherry trees and their spring
petals, she missed the cattle and the brown river and the white
walls and thatched roofs of the village. Father had planted an
apple tree in their backyard in the city. Each June it drooped
with white. Mother sat beneath. Her hands at whatever sort of work
she had placed in her lap. But she would not let go of the
language. She would not settle in the new world.
Father was not harsh. She could not recall that he yelled at
Mother or the rest of them. But someone had passed a temper to the
children and grandchildren. Father had a white face with a huge
moustache, grown in imitation of the Ukrainian poet and
nationalist, Taras Shevchenko. Had Father read his poetry? She did
not remember a book or books. Only newspapers.
He had been nine years older than Mother. He had wanted to
come. It seemed to her he had always spoken English. Holding her.
Rocking her. He had used English words. And his teeth had been
white. But there had been a smell from them of something getting
old. The rest of him smelled like leather and tobacco. Sometimes
she could see him in brown, sitting in a brown chair. The chair
was bigger than him. Yet his grandsons were huge. Tall. How did
such things happen in a family? The creak of the gate was the
sound of his arrival. In the blanching, whitening heat of the
city’s summers he still wore a dark suit and a hat. In the
backyard, he would roll up his sleeves and drink beer with
Mother’s brother, Uncle Vasyl, who smelled of the beer and of the
salami and of the garlic, it was in his summer sweat. Father sat
still and gave off an odour that did not attack you. Now he was
always in his coffin. His nostrils black caverns. His moustache
streaked grey and white. His head round and creased like a drying
apple. His fingers shrunken. As if melting candlesticks had been
toppled into two rows on his chest.
Later on. Father had lost his temper more frequently. He had
become discontented with Canada. He had given up so much to come.
But it had not worked out as he believed it should. Maybe he had
wanted to go back too, like Mother, but he was too proud to say
it. Or realized he was too old. The silence of his brown chair
became the silence of a gravel pit where she had played as a
child, a pit where nothing grew.
She moved about her apartment, lunging from one room to the
next, her black cane snapping onto linoleum or thumping into
carpet. She was not large. Her head was pulling back into her neck
and shoulders. Her entire body was creeping earthwards. The kettle
rumbled when she plugged it in. A round tin with the photograph of
a castle on it held her tea bags. She dropped one into a glazed
brown teapot. Then she made her way to the washroom. Nothing in
the apartment was more than five or six steps away. Her pale skin
clung to the toilet seat. She had forgotten to switch on the air
conditioner in the living room window. And ask her nephew to come
and cover the glass in foil. Before the July and August heat. Her
forehead was damp when she touched it and in the mirror her neck
and ears were red. Her glasses slipped down her nose.
How was it that everything was black and grey when she
thought back? Not just her parents. But the house. The river. The
buildings. The sky. The grass. In those days the photographs were
very good, full of sharp lines, as if the images had been
chiselled or carved into the paper. Now photographs were
indistinct. Faces and hands and eyes and hair had no edges.
The skin on her face felt heavy. If you stood out on the
prairie that spread around the city. There was a wind to cool you
in the summer months. The grass would be changing colour and
shape. As if it were under a current of water. But in the city.
The heat slumped over the buildings and the avenues. The wind was
broken into too many fragments and did you no good.
She sipped her tea in her chair. Wind tossed rain up against
the windows by the pailful. Water would suddenly obliterate
everything. Every tree. The river.
The television screen was black. In bed, on a hard mattress,
walls around and above her. She slept. Moved from her bed each
morning without thinking. The washroom. Dressing. Coffee and
toast. Her pills. From one prison to the next. She had survived
Hitler’s. She would survive the shrivelling body and drying bone.
Perhaps death would not be a hole in the ground. Perhaps it would
be another imprisonment you had to endure.
Why did they come? They had been young. Their skin smooth and
firm. Their eyes clear.
She dreaded the disappearance of the light. In the whirl of
dark her fear and pain would congeal with the black into anger. A
familiar anger suddenly blazing up white through her head and
spurting into her hands and tongue.
God. I could kill you.
Their photographs were in the bedroom, on the bureau, along
with a flower basket of painted china and another doily. Her
husband. His hand resting on her shoulder. His hair combed
straight back. Slim. Certain. Eyebrows and hair dark. Steady with
his ideas and feelings. Not bothering to smile. Strength in his
eyes and in the hand on her dress. Every line of him clear. The
other photograph of her son. His hair was light. A lean face like
his father’s. A gentleness from her own parents. A softening from
forehead to eye to the shape of his jaw. Each hair on his head
distinct and obvious. Killed by Hitler. Both of them killed and
buried in Ukraine after the lilacs had opened.
Why did we go back? Who wanted to return and help Stalin
build a new world? My husband? My son? I?
Sometimes she could stare at these pictures and feel nothing.
They lived with her constantly. As she walked. Bent over. Spoke.
Dressed. Chewed her toast. Sat in her chair. Took a taxi to the
Bay. Yet she could be dusting under and around the photographs and
a glance at her son would split her skin and bone, cause her to
sag to the bed, cloth in hand, pressed into her thigh, as she shut
her eyes and fought to breathe.
She had been a child. She had stumbled through the open trap
door in the kitchen and fallen headfirst down the wooden ladder
into the cellar. The cellar floor had been earth or she would have
been killed. Father rushed over to pick her up. A lantern burning
in the corner. Where he had been selecting jars of preserves to
bring up for Mother. He cradled her as she squeezed her face
together and cried in rage and pain and fright. He had spoken to
her in English. No. Not just in English. Her tiny fist had knotted
in one of his suspenders. Swaying in the dark. Laid on her bed.
She had felt Father carefully pry her fingers loose. She mumbled
for water. He placed a glass to her lips and tipped it slowly as
she drank. She slept and woke and twisted in her sleep. Her feet
kicked at the sheets. She sensed him sitting there. In the morning
there was sun against every wall.
The window pane was stiff and cold. She leaned her head
against the glass and stared at the field, at the wire trees, at
the white river. Now and then a gust of wind shook the window. The
sun, the clouds, the sky, each of them blurred into the other.
Everything was grey. Her nails. The photographs. The television.
The tea in the cup she held in her lap. She stirred it with a
small silver spoon. There was a sound like a wind chime.
The Year Before I Was Born
A splinter of wind stabbed at Lesia’s throat. She pulled the
hood up over Olena’s head. The river below them was brown.
I watch this river a long time, Lesia told her younger
sister. Until I see nothing else but the way it is moving. I
close my eyes and try to think back as far as I can. Even before
my birth. Each week I find a memory I had forgotten. I put it
together with my other memories. As if I were putting little water
beads on a string. Then I look at all of them. One after the
The colour green. An old woman. Her eyes wrinkling into
invisibility. A spoked wooden wheel beside her. Propped against a
white cottage. Bright light over everything. Red flowers. The
petals. A soft. Waxy. Taste. A large black curling river. A dark-
haired woman slapping at Lesia’s hands. Fire. Yellow. Hot. In the
blackness of a room. A young man in a shadow in a corner. The
smell of garlic. Strong. Bitter. On her hands and fingers. Long
white fields. More and more sky. Tremendous amounts of sky. Men
with brown faces and loose shirts. Sweat shining like a paste on
their cheeks and arms. Rocking. Rocking. And a window moving past
hills and meadows. A crowd of people. A dock. A ship. Wet wood.
Brown wet wood. Ropes. A dark place. An iron place. And a woman’s
head, Mother’s head, next to her own.
Is that all there is?
Well. We stood somewhere. It was hot. I was feeling sick.
Then everything I remember is about here. The house. The black
earth in the backyard. The windows fogged over from Mother’s
I will have better memories than that, said Olena.
The White Birds
Lesia stands at the trunk of the apple tree, the sun spotting
one arm as it drops through the leaves, the birds fluttering among
the branches. She thinks she would like to try drinking beer. But
she knows Father will not permit it. Even though she is sixteen.
Still. It is a good thing to stand there. Listening to the men
talk. Feeling the heat like warm water around her body. There are
pickles and sandwiches and a raspberry drink for her younger
sister Olena and herself. This comes from a tall bottle Mother
lifts down from a high shelf, a red syrup she mixes with water.
Sometimes, like today, Mother does not put in enough of the syrup,
trying to make the bottle last. Then the drink is tart. Olena
crinkles her small pink nose like a finger. Lesia likes it
sweeter. But she does not care as long as it is cool. Mother
chops. Ice fragments into the drink.
Her Mother is not happy. All summer she goes on about the
village she grew up in. Where Lesia’s brothers Michael and Iakiv
were born. Mother calls the land Ukraine. Sometimes Galicia. The
wheat ripening. The soil dark as night underfoot. The women
sitting together on benches and talking. Uncle Vasyl, Mother’s
brother, invites her to leave the city, to move out with him and
live on the farm. Lesia wishes Mother and Father would do that.
But Father is a cobbler, as he was in Ukraine, and he has a good
job downtown. The boys do not want to live on the farm. They like
the city and its people and its noise. They like to visit the
girls from the church. To eat Sunday dinners at their homes. Olena
will not go to the farm either. It is too dirty and it smells. She
wants to dress well and work at Eaton’s. Wait on rich ladies
and sell them hosiery and perfume.
Olena was secure in her beauty and her slimness. She began to
call Lesia “the toad.” Lesia trudged beside her on the way to
school because Mother demanded it. But Olena was furious when she
was seen with her heavy broad-shouldered sister. “I thought you
were walking with one of your brothers,” someone would tease, and
Olena’s face would swell with blood. Screaming and kicking at the
ice with her boot. Ordering Lesia to stay away from her. Finally,
Lesia consented. They would leave the house together but at the
corner Olena would join her friends, slender beauties in long
coats and bright mittens and clean boots. While Lesia plodded on
by herself. On the way home, Olena would rejoin Lesia at the same
corner, scarcely speaking, her cheeks dark, knowing her friends
were watching as she shortened her stride to match Lesia’s
sluggish walk. At the school they laughed. “Olena the Beauty has
many brothers but no sisters.”
Lesia began to read. Books, magazines. She started a diary,
scribbling in it while Olena painted her toenails. She could only
do her toenails because Mother would never see them. Blowing on
them, she would twist her lips and eyes to Lesia as Lesia’s pencil
grated across a page.
“What could a fat, fat toad like you ever do,” Olena once
mocked, “that was exciting enough to write about? Squeezing
pimples? Flushing the toilet?”
Lesia erupted. Lashing across the room. Her pencil point
broke off in Olena’s shoulder. Her fist sliced a corner of her
sister’s mouth. Olena shrieked and swore and scratched at Lesia’s
eyes. Father burst into their room and separated them. Then
slipped his belt out from under the loops on his pants and whipped
them both. Mother had to heat a pin and pry the pencil point from
Olena’s skin. Place sticking plaster on the edge of her lips.
Olena’s toenails were also discovered. From that day on, and for
years afterwards, Mother looked at Olena’s feet before she pulled
on her stockings and shoes. Mother also made Olena leave on the
sticking plaster for two weeks. Marring the pale beauty of Olena’s
face and skin. Causing her to sit stiffly in class. Sensing eyes
on the beige lump at the side of her mouth. She was so angry with
Lesia she called her a whore. Refused to speak with her unless she
had no other choice. At such times, her tone was cold and flat.
Like a strip of February ice.
1914. Michael and Iakiv left when the leaves fell. A year
passed. Two years. Leaves crashed onto heads and backs. Onto roads
and walkways. Flew. Before Lesia’s eyes. On weekends she
volunteered at the hospital. In rooms. Where she mopped dark green
floors. Old men. With caved-in faces. Coughed and sputtered. Like
taps squirting brown filth. She scrubbed at honey-sweet patches of
dried urine. On her hands and knees. Ice sheeted the grass and
mud. Snow buried their gate. She helped Father shovel. Wind
splintered across her nose and cheeks.
Iakiv returned home. An army motorcar drove him up to the
house. Slipped out of the sleigh ruts. Had to be pushed. Father
and Lesia and a soldier got behind it. Slush spraying their legs.
“You should use horses in the winter,” grumbled Father to the
soldier, “like everyone else.”
Iakiv waited, leaning on a cane, a clean white bandage
wrapped over his eyes.
“I’m all right, Mama. Lesia is at the hospital. She knows how
these things are done. Every day a fresh bandage. Wash the used
ones. What have you heard from Michael?”
When Lesia removed Iakiv’s bandage the first time she made no
sound. He sat and joked while she placed on a clean dressing. The
old was stained. It smelled like James MacKenzie. Who had his face
scooped out. It smelled like his hospital sheets. The black rot.
Between his legs.
“What are his eyes like?”
“I don’t think he wants you to know that, Olena.”
“I cook for you. I mend your clothes. Are they open?”
“They are partly open. Not very much.”
“Can you see his eyes?”
“There is. What you can see is white.”
“Where does the yellow stuff come from?”
“He’s my brother. I have a right to know. Sara Bodiansky’s
brother was killed. They found out yesterday.”
“Iakiv is not going to die.”
“How do you know? Are you a doctor? I will tell you
something. I’ll be going to my first dance this June.”
“Father will never permit it.”
“I’m going anyway. You’ll pretend I’m up here in bed.”
“I will not do that.”
“Yes, you will. You’re my good sister. For me you will.”
All winter Olena made bits of clothing for Lesia. A pair of
grey pants. A blue summer blouse. When the snow had melted and the
puddles had disappeared, when June and the lilacs and the tall
green elms came, the dance was scheduled. That night the sisters
went to bed early. Once Father and Mother and Iakiv had gone to
their rooms, Olena padded shoeless down the staircase. The door
snapped when she shut it behind her. Father came to the foot of
“Lesia. Are you both in bed?”
“Yes, Papa. Olena is already asleep.”
“All right. Good. I heard your brother walking around.”
He checked the door, thought he had forgotten to lock it.
Lesia lay awake. At one o’clock pebbles struck the window. She
went downstairs and silently opened the door.
“Thanks, sis,” whispered Olena after they had closed the door
to their room.
“Never again, Olena. I don’t like lying to Papa.”
“It’s not as if I’m doing something wrong. I’m just dancing.”
“Just dancing? Only dancing?”
“A little dancing. A kiss or two. So what?”
“Papa would be furious.”
“But he won’t be. He doesn’t know. The soldiers are having a
dance in July.”
“I am not doing this again.”
“Of course you’ll do it again. I’m making you a beautiful
skirt. The blouse and skirt will go together. Do you know Osyp
Lozynsky hardly knows how to kiss? He tried to be such a man about
it. But I could see he was scared. I almost started laughing. He
covered up my nose. Then he made this terrible sucking sound. Poor
Osyp. I told him I was cold and had to get back inside.”
“Father will let you go to dances when you are twenty.”
“Oh, yes. I’m going to wait until I’m twenty to hold a man in
my arms. It’s so stupid. In Ukraine, the girls are dancing before
they’re my age.”
“We are not in a Ukrainian village now, Olena.”
“Papa wants us to be Canadians, doesn’t he? What about you,
my sister? You don’t want a man to kiss you and sweep you around a
“Don’t talk like an idiot!”
“Keep your voice down. So you don’t have any interest in
“I have enough to do.”
“You’re afraid. But I could make you look lovely.”
“Don’t talk like an idiot.”
“Your arms and legs are too thick. But you have a woman’s
body. Your skin tone is good. Your hair could be curled and cut
and your face would look smaller.”
“I don’t want a man. I am not like you.”
“You’ll change your tune, sis.”
Throughout the summer Olena went to dances. But early in
September she stepped carefully down the staircase and Iakiv was
waiting for her. He had known about the pretense, he told her.
Yes, he wanted her to enjoy herself. But now it was no longer
summer. It was enough. If she wanted to continue going to dances
she had to ask Father’s permission. And she had to have a
chaperone. He could be the chaperone. Or Lesia.
“How can I go to a dance with you?” she argued, tears slicing
from her eyes. “You’re blind. And Lesia is so fat and ugly.”
Iakiv took his fingers off his cane and gripped her wrist
tightly. “You’ll go with a chaperone. There’s all kinds of guys
When Olena sat at supper a few nights later, she stirred the
food on her plate and quietly asked about going to dances. Father
and Mother both shouted. She threw down her fork and screamed and
ran into the backyard, stumbling and falling underneath the apple
tree, the birds scattering. Father raced after her. His belt in
his hand. But when he realized she had fainted he called for Lesia
to help him. They carried her up to her bed. She was pale. Groaned
whenever they tried to speak to her. Mother draped a cold cloth
over Olena’s forehead and wiped at her cheeks and neck.
Father would not let Olena attend a dance that school year.
Even after she had turned sixteen. In June she took a job at
Eaton’s in women’s clothing. She told them she was eighteen,
changing her birthdate. They believed her. She was tall. With
makeup and a certain frown. Her face became older. She dressed as
elegantly and maturely as possible. Sewing some of her own
clothing so meticulously it could not be distinguished from
dresses and skirts she purchased. Her hemline rose. Exposing a
strip of ivory ankle and calf. Father raged in Ukrainian, peas
dropping out of his mouth. Olena declared it was store policy to
dress fashionably. If she did not do so she would lose her job.
Father left the table and his food and stalked into the front
room, reaching for the newspaper. His eyebrows were dark cuts. He
would not allow Olena to kiss him goodnight. She did not try again.
Taras had proposed to Lesia on the fourth anniversary of the
Russian Revolution. As the city emerged wet and steaming from the
ice and drifts, as Olena celebrated her nineteenth birthday,
Mother pleased with the extra flesh on her bones and face,
preparations began for the May wedding. Father sat at the kitchen
table salting and eating hardboiled eggs that had already been
pickled, oblivious to the women from the neighbourhood who spent
afternoons and evenings in the house helping Mother and Olena and
Lesia bake. The activity reminded Uncle Vasyl of sparrows
splashing in a rain puddle, wings beating madly. Sometimes Olena
would complain and go to her room, face red and damp. Pyrohy and
holopchys were made the day before the ceremony, thirty women bent
over tables at the Chornavka house, fingers jerking and rolling
even before the sun coated the windows and walls.
Hours before noon on the wedding day shirts were already
plastering onto chests and backs.
“A wet heat,” grumbled Uncle Vasyl as he climbed into a
neighbour’s car. “My God, it will be a furnace.”
The church’s black domes absorbed the early afternoon heat
into the sanctuary and into the skin and blood of everyone that
was present. Olena fainted just as Lesia and Taras were exchanging
rings. Two young men struggled to get her outside.
“What the heck happened to Olena?” one of them whispered as
they propped her against the church wall in a square of shade.
“When did she get such a gut on her?”
“You know. She can’t find a husband. Her sister is getting
married before she is and it’s driving her crazy. She’s been
eating like a horse.”
“Remember how she used to look?”
“She was a beauty. But you couldn’t get along with her. The
whole world had to turn around Olena.”
The sun and a headache blinding her, she half-collapsed
against Lesia and Taras when they emerged from the church
surrounded by a crowd. She kissed Lesia noisily on the mouth.
“God bless you.”
“Thank you, Olena. Are you all right? You should get out of
“I’m wonderful. God bless you. May you have many happy years.
She took Taras’ face in her hands and kissed him on the lips
until he pulled himself away.
“Thank you, Taras. God bless you. You understand what I
“Yes, thank you, Olena. Please go and rest. You look ill.”
“God bless you. You know what I mean, Taras.”
Tables inside and outside the Chornavka home were draped in
white cloths and spread with huge plates of baked food and sausage
and lemonade and beer. The backyard was crammed with people,
huddling under the white blossoms of the apple tree. A breeze rose
up in the evening, spinning petals into the beer, and couples
gradually spilled out onto the front lawn and into the street,
laughing and talking loudly and hanging onto plates green with
pickles and white with potatoes. Michael, who had never entered
the backyard, sat on a patch of grass near the road and drank from
two glasses of beer a friend had carried out. Olena noticed him
from an upstairs window where she was applying wet towels to her
face and neck. She went down and made her way through the people
on the lawn and through the open front gate, spreading a dry towel
and sitting beside her brother.
“How’re you feeling?” he asked.
“You’d feel better if you lost some weight. I couldn’t
believe it was you when I saw you getting carried out of the
“Do I look like I’m pregnant?”
“That’s a stupid thing to say.”
“What do you think of Taras?”
“He’s a jerk. I wonder if someone can talk him into getting
drunk on his wedding day. He’s not even sweating, I bet.”
“Lesia is doing all right by him.”
“Yeah? Another Red she can get rid of the old world with. It
used to be you who didn’t have any sense.”
“I hope they stay here. I don’t want them going over to
“Let them go. The less Bolsheviks over here the better. When
are you going to get married?”
“You’re older than I am.”
“I was seeing a couple of girls. Sisters of guys at the mill.
Did you ever meet Regina? Something might work out.”
“We miss you. You should go over and talk to Papa. You could
patch things up today.”
“Sure. Maybe if he’s so drunk he can hardly see he’ll talk.”
“Go ahead, Michael. Mama and Papa love you. We’re all
“Yeah. Get me some more beer, would you? No, forget it. You
look like you’re about to keel over. Let’s get out of the sun.”
Father had hired musicians. One man had a violin, another an
accordion, another sat behind a small set of drums. As the sun
dropped red and purple on the budding elms a fast polka rhythm
beat its way over the lawn from the front porch. Olena felt a
surge of energy and swung herself around Michael’s neck.
“Come on, let’s polka!”
“Are you crazy? You’ll drop dead.”
“Come on, come on.”
They charged up and down the street, Olena bursting into
life, spinning under Michael’s hand. Other couples were lunging
back and forth on the lawn, while six or eight men and women
decided to join Olena and Michael on the road where there was more
room. Gravel crunched under their shoes and dust bloomed around
their legs. Michael began to laugh. He lost his balance and they
toppled into another couple. Michael apologized, shook the other
man’s hand, then gripped Olena and galloped further up the street
where no one else was dancing.
“Michael,” grinned Olena, sweat darting under the collar of
her dress like needles.
As the light diminshed, a clump of men thundered with song at
the front of the house, while in the back children tumbled and
shrieked as their mothers and older sisters looked on from their
chairs. The musicians had stopped for a drink but would begin
playing again in an hour. Three younger men were vomiting in the
bushes and one grandfather sagged against the porch steps,
stripped to his sleevless undershirt. Iakiv, after consuming a
large quantity of vodka, was lying full-length on the couch in the
front room, whistling with scarcely a pause, while nine or ten men
hunched over the kitchen table, shirts yanked open, cards in their
hands and pennies and dimes scattered between them.
Olena washed her face and entered her bedroom. All the
different sounds rose from the ground and crackled through the
window, a few closer and clearer, others muted. Taras and Lesia
came slowly up the stairs, laughing and speaking rapidly in
Ukrainian. They walked into the bedroom. Lesia was bright with
light, her face seemed to have been polished to a brilliance. Her
hair was short, in fine, light curls that added a soft hue to her
cheeks and throat. The blouse Olena had sewn for her was tied
gently just above her breasts, Ukrainian embroidery at the
neckline and wrists, red and white and black.
“Well, my sister,” Lesia smiled, “here we are. What is our
“This. God is with me. Do you see my wonderful body?”
Lesia roared and smacked Olena on the side of her head.
“Button up your dress! Are you crazy?”
The blow forced Olena to sit on the bed, slightly stunned,
one hand still holding open her dress. Taras averted his eyes and
stepped back into the hallway, shutting the door.
“Taras!” called Olena as the door closed. “Look! My wonderful
Lesia hit Olena with her fist. Olena sprawled across her
mattress and began to scream.
“Shut your mouth!” Lesia raged. “Our guests will hear you!”
She jumped onto the bed, punching at Olena’s lips and teeth.
Olena saw some of her blood shoot onto the front of Lesia’s
Nicholas spent two weeks with his Grandmother and Grandfather every summer. Just on the other side of the river. He could almost see their place from his own house. But the bridge was miles away. So it took a long time to get from one home to the other.
When Grandmother and Grandmother’s house was empty. Grandmother outside in the garden. Uncle Iakiv in a chair under the tree. Uncle Michael asleep on his bed in the room he shared with Nicholas. Grandfather at the shop. Making boots. Nicholas came downstairs and sat on the horsehair couch. It became a large brown stallion that walked slowly through the prairie grasses. Flies buzzed and popped against the windows. His cousins William and Stephen and their friends were shouting and playing stickball down the street. Light slid from one of Nicholas’ bare legs to the other. A wonderful quiver shimmered up his back. He kicked his feet and grinned. The brown horse continued to step in a careful rhythm. Avoiding gopher holes. Nicholas twisted his neck and light glittered through his eyelids. Hot and smooth against his forehead and cheeks. Thousands of men out of work. Going along the roads. Walking into towns. Dust swirling in cones behind them. Sleeves flapping on their arms. He could join them. Walk beside the poorest and the weakest. Find them food. Rip his clothing and make bandages for their wounds. Back and forth from the prairies to the sea. The haze of the roads all around them. Glistening in the stabs of sunlight. Cuts that spread light through the dust and dirt. So that they stepped through a sheen and a sparkling. As if on water. Grandmother and Grandfather had taken him to a big lake one Saturday. Sun skipping like a stone over the blue and green waves. A painful bobbing brightness. Broken pieces of heat. He had shielded his face with his hand.
Twice a week Nicholas’ mother and father would come to see him. Others would visit. Then they would eat together. A big family. One Tuesday night his mother and father were late. Grandfather grumbled and finally began serving up the hot food. Sweat made Nicholas’ shirt sticky. The kitchen was drenched in heat. The oven door open and the windows squares of brightness. Aunt Olena coaxed Nicholas to take more. It was too warm. He felt dizzy. Stumbled aainst a chair and limped up to bed. Books were stacked on a small shelf next to his pillow and he opened the one about giants. When the room glowed with the day’s warmth and light. When the shadows slipped along the walls. When he knew he could lie under the cool sheets forever and stretch his legs and not have to get up. Uncle Michael came in and laid down. Reading The Saturday Evening Post. A woman’s face painted on the cover. The windows darkened. A giant thumped along the street to the river. Carrying Nicholas. He opened his eyes. He could hear his mother’s voice downstairs.
No. Mama. There were too many people. We have to go back with the car.
In the morning. It is late.
Papa. We have to go back. They will steal whatever they can find.
It is still burning.
We must go back tonight. There will be nothing left in the morning.
He closed his eyes. He was walking along a road. Powder curled up from his bare toes. The sky and the fields were empty. He sat on the brown grass. It crackled. His mattress moved. Smoke. And wool. Against his face. His mother was crying. Fear thundered in his head and chest. She was pressing him against her.
“Nicholas. I am sorry. I did not want to wake you. You are beautiful when you are asleep. An angel for your mother.”
“What’s the matter? Mama?”
“A fire. Our house is gone.”
“We have to go through everything and find what did not get burned. People did it. They came up from the river. They came from the city. I do not know.”
“Why? What did we do?”
“Because we are Communists. Because we try to help the workers.”
“I’m coming with you, Lesia.”
“No. Michael. Papa is going. And Uncle Vasyl.”
“You’ll need me.”
“You are sick.”
“I’m not that sick.”
Uncle Michael pulled on pants over his boxer shorts and jammed a shirt into the waistband.
Aunt Olena came to sit with Nicholas. Uncle Iakiv was downstairs with Grandmother.
“Why did they do that to our house?”
“There are all kinds of crazy people.”
“The police should have stopped them. The firemen should have saved our house.”
“My Nicholas. Your house is not very big. By the time the firemen got there. It was finished.”
“We didn’t hurt anyone.”
“My Nicholas. People don’t like Communists. Communists don’t believe in God. They hate our Prime Minister. They want to get rid of all the rich people. They would like to pull down the churches.”
“My mother and father don’t want to tear down churches.”
“They don’t hate anyone.”
“No? You’d be surprised. They have a lot of enemies.”
“Who do you think burned your house down? You’re lucky you weren’t in it.”
“They wouldn’t have hurt me.”
“Why not? You’re an enemy too. You are your mother’s son. Aren’t you?”
“I don’t have enemies.”
“My Nicholas. It’s all right. You are far away from the river now. No one is going to hurt you. I won’t let them.”
“I want to help people.”
“I know that.”
The room was dark and she stroked his hair. The car returned. Rumbling to a stop in front of the house. She lay his head back against a pillow and covered him with his blankets. He heard the voices in the front room and came down the staircase until he could see. His mother was holding a dress that was white but scorched black on its sleeves and along its bottom. His Grandmother had her arms folded across her chest. A white scarf over her brown hair. Grandfather. His long coat on. Slumped in his armchair. Aunt Olena put her arms around his mother’s shoulders and rested her chin against his mother’s head. Her eyes closed.
Uncle Michael took Nicholas on the streetcar. It was summer. It was an open car. Nicholas put his face out into the wind of the rattling streetcar. They got off and walked slowly over to where the house had been. Two men were shovelling blackness into the back of a truck with high wooden sides. Nicholas could see the charred and bent metal of his parents’ bedframe sticking out over the top. A mattress sagged out of the end of the truck. Burnt wood was stacked on top of it. Bright white stuffing spilled out of a hole. In its side. The men wore heavy gloves filthy with soot. They glanced. At Nicholas. At Uncle Michael. And kept on working. There were lumps of wood. As if there had been a bonfire. The kind Grandfather lit on Victoria Day. The men scooped up the embers and coals in their shovels. Grunted. And slung them back over their shoulders. They banged like stones against the bedframe. One of the workers picked up a rake and began to build dark mounds the other could ram his shovel into. Tracks of grey appeared where the sweat oozed out from under their flat caps. Their skin was grimy with dust. A raw smell made Nicholas’ nose flinch. He thought. Of a goose his mother had tried to roast. The bird was black and charred on top. When she cut into it the flesh was pink and bleeding. He walked away. Towards the river. Uncle Michael followed. Two men were squatting at the bottom of the high bank. Cooking lumps of wet dough on sharpened green sticks. The smoke. Smelt of bark and roots and bread. It laced in and out of the branches and crowns of the trees. In between the curls and the leaves. The river slid flashing. They went back. From the streetcar there was a sweep of green. A patch of dimness where the two workers stood. Another blaze of green that raced on without stopping.
At supper only a few of them spoke. The others looked down at what they were eating. Nicholas held the cool salted slice of a cucumber. Round and white. Upon his tongue. His mother put her fork and knife aside and sank her face onto a clenched fist.
“Why did you bring us to this country? Papa? What has Canada done for us? What good is this place?”
At bedtime Nicholas opened the book on giants. When the room crept into the night the flames shot up through the ceiling. Melting plaster. Opening a huge hole to the sky. Pictures crashed off the walls and glass shattered. Nicholas shook Uncle Michael. Yelled. But Uncle Michael’s mouth only dropped open. He continued to lie there. Breathing out. Nicholas ran into the hall. He shouted and ran down the staircase. Fire dripped from the ceiling in the front room. The horsehair couch erupted. All the doors of the rooms hung open. Belching smoke. As if they were furnaces. Window panes cracked and burst. He opened the front door. Dozens of people stood outside the white fence watching. He ran to them.
We need water! Put out the fire!
The people threw rocks. A few tore pickets out of the fence and hurled them.
Get back inside you ugly little Slav!
Nicholas stood in the backyard with Uncle Michael and Uncle Vasyl the next morning. A heavy dew staining the toes of his brown shoes black. A meadowlark grey and yellow and silent. On the clothesline. Pots and bottles and shoes and pants had been tossed in a heap on the grass. A truck had brought them over. The stench of smoke and charcoal lay over the yard. Not the good smell of wood in a fireplace. Or drifting over the street in autumn. The sour reek of things that had gone bad. Things burnt that were not meant for fire. Nicholas poked with his foot at a washbasin scarred with black. It rolled over. Underneath. One of his own boots. Melted and twisted out of shape. Uncle Vasyl thrust with a stick at a mound of towels. Uncle Michael’s hands were in his pockets. He walked around the edges of the pile and then went to the back fence. He was wearing a clean white shirt. Unbuttoned at the throat. Maroon suspenders held up his grey pants. The sun caught onto his shirt. He picked a few blackberries from a bush on the other side of the fence. He scraped his thumbnail against one of the pickets. White flakes spattered his hand.
“It needs new paint.”
The View from the Window
The black domes rose smoking into the sunlight, the meltwater
steaming off their sides. The silver crosses on top of each dome
sparked, darkened, then gusted with fire. The sky dominated the
city. Persons were forced to notice it but they prefered to look
at other faces. At cars. At buildings. The sky was too raw. A
blue. That was growing like the grass. Green and wild and
clambering. Out of the ditches and over the fields.
Even when people did not look directly at the sun, the sky
was bright enough to make them wince. If you gazed, you realized
how far away you were, that the city was only a fragment, the
buildings no more than stones and sticks and plaster, yourself
simply bones and a skull. Everything was diminished. The streets
and parks and rooftops and traffic did not seem so incredible an
achievement after all. The rattle of life, of bodies and wagon
wheels and electric wires, appeared as miniscule as granules of
dust blowing in from the prairie. Everything seemed to be
Michael stared down at the black leather shoes on his feet
and at the ragged cracks in the sidewalk, trying to regain
perspective. He saw his family walking ahead of him and entering
through the open front doors of the church. The crosses burned,
and inside under the domes, tall candles swelled, wax spurting
down over the brass holders. He stepped in. Hardly able to see.
After the sky. Took off his hat. Bent to one knee. Crossed
himself. Knelt at the pew behind Uncle Vasyl and Joseph.
He had been cold. Now he felt hot, as if the candles were
right at his side, as if his skin were peeling in strips like the
wax. Two of the altar boys were holding up a large crucifix at the
front. He imagined it lost, no more than a splinter, the blue sky
cutting at it until it was only a thorn. The choir lashed out and
the crucifix swayed. Two criminals. The sky wadding up into a
black thickness like God’s fist. Who yanked at the nails, trying
to pull their hands free? One spits on him. Their mouths are full
of bluebottles but they have to argue. The blood is out of them
but they’ve got to fight.
The candles speared upward. He hit his chest. Harder each
time. His knees popped like sticks when he bent. He felt a line of
sweat slither from behind his ear and shoot down into his collar
as if someone were tracing it with their finger. Incense drifted
over his face. His nose tightened.
I need a smoke. Get it over with. Kill him.
Bells clashed. He walked forward, head down, one hand
clamping the other.
He wouldn’t drink. Hammered to a telephone pole in the middle
of the prairie. The wine is too warm. The wafer as brittle as a
wishbone. The sky is everywhere.
He crossed himself. He stepped past the crucifix. One on the
left. The other on the right. Yelping like they’d been drilled in
the guts. Blood all over their white shirts. All over the oak
floor. Christ. He lit a cigarette at the foot of the church steps.
The domes were as black as dried blood.
Michael washed his hands under the tap in the bathroom sink.
Three days later. Ran his fingers. Through his hair and began to
comb, parting carefully in the middle. He shrugged his shoulders a
few times and watched in the mirror how the black suit settled on
his body. He went to the door and put on an overcoat.
The sky was a grey metal fence, a bleak barrier through which
pale blue-veined fingers poked. Bits of light glinted like gold
foil. He buttoned the coat up to his throat and over the knot on
his tie. Each time his black shoes came down on the cement there
was a crack. He used the same route the family walked every
The domes were round and tight and dark. He swung open one of
the wooden doors. He smelled stale incense and cold air that could
not move and the dead wax from candles. He genuflected. Knelt at a
pew. He felt the priest enter the confessional. He imagined
himself as the priest might see him, a man with a stout body and
combed hair dressed in black with a white shirt and a shiny blue
tie crouched over a pew. How did he look to God? From above there
would be the part in the hair. The black shoulders and shoes. A
mound of black. Blood thudded in his ears and his fingertips were
cold. He stood up and banged his knee. He opened the door of the
confessional and sat in the dimness. Someone had been in the booth
who had plastered themself with a hair oil that smelled like
peppermint. He slumped, put a fist under his nose, smelled the
family soap and the oil in his skin and the wool of his overcoat.
When he came out of the confessional the sanctuary seemed to be at
a distance. He stared at the icon over the altar and patted down
I will not forget the mirror. The heavy drawers with the
brass handles. The black wood. The one light, no stronger than a
candle, and Mother’s body and arms in it. Her face smooth. Even
though there are plenty of wrinkles. Her eyes. Black iron. And the
light rests on the surface of them. She is sitting at the edge of
the bed. She was going to undress but I knocked. Her stockings are
already coiled on the brown and white rug. The bed takes up most
of the room. And the bureau with the mirror. I can see her back in
that mirror and the roundness of her head under the scarf. Father
is smaller than the mirror. A black moustache is half his face.
His hands look as if he has been smoking a lot of cigarettes. But
the fingers are stained that way from the polish at the boot shop.
He is standing at the foot of the bed. His suspenders are dangling
around his legs. His head is dimpled like an orange. The white
curtains are pulled close together over the window. A white
rosary. Drips off the top of the bureau. In the mirror Mother gets
up. She is speaking. Hardly raising her voice. Her fingers are
hard and the smells of her body. Sharp. If there is a north wind.
The stars will look like crucifixes. The bedspread is brown and
blue flowers. There is a red point blanket. A hole near the
Hudson’s Bay crest. In a year I might say: The light was a
candle. I will remember everything but the wallpaper. I can’t
make out the pattern.