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Thursday, March 03, 2011

the white birds of morning (excerpt)

WINTER SOLSTICE
December 21


The sun had been hung like a brass circle over the fields of grass and snow. A long line of vehicles crawled over the road that Brother Martin had plowed with the garden tractor, a straight road, and flat, like the roads of all prairies and plains and steppes, and one that took people right to the gate of the monastery.
The cars and trucks were dark. Tanks and troop carriers had come the same way through snow and wheat 60 or 70 years before when I lived a different existence in a different century.
But these were not soldiers with guns and bombs and malevolent intent. These were musicians with cellos and violas and trumpets and timpani. These were women and men who wished to recreate and renew and replenish. Yet I could not ignore that they came in that long dark line, pulling the sky down with them. They were bringing more than music. They brought the long night. And of all the hours in the year and in a life, those which were most impenetrable.
The new abbot was very much in favour of my sister Zoya being declared a saint. He had flung open the doors of our chapel, with its perfect acoustics, for works that had been commissioned in her honour. The musicians were here to make official recordings of those works. They knew her brother was at the Trappist monastery. Whether they would recognize him as the one with his hood up and leaning on a snow shovel was another matter. In the hard red granite of the sun’s fall, as they drove towards our gates, drove implacably as fate or divine will, I prayed I would be missed and forgotten in the turbulence of rehearsals, miles of black cord, microphone stands and violins being tuned to perfection.
The Vatican had phoned. There were still some unanswered questions. Some gaps. Would I – Andrii, Brother Nahum – be available for the Holy Father’s personal emissary? Could the abbot place him at Archbishop Frederick’s disposal? They scarcely needed to ask. The new abbot would do whatever was necessary - and more. How opportune, how blessed, that the retinue from Rome would arrive during the celebration of the Holy Nativity, exactly when the recordings of the sacred music written for Zoya were to be done. The abbot saw God’s hand in all of it.
Dom Alexander, the abbot who had died, would have shielded me as much as he could from the prying and probing. The new one simply threw me to the wolves. He did not understand, nor would he support, my reluctance. I had taken a vow of obedience. It was up to me to get on with it.
The cars rolled past where I stood. I saw the faces of the musicians and the sound people and the producers, the long-haired women and sometimes long-haired men, the large black cases that held basses and harps and drums. I expect they thought I looked strange and medieval in my monastic garb, my hood peaked like a steeple. No stranger than God or life itself, I said to them without moving my lips.
The archbishop would come in the same way down the same road. His cars would also be dark. They had been the first time. Perhaps he would be in a foul mood because the devil’s advocate had picked apart his case for my sister’s canonization. Or perhaps he would have made peace with his disappointment and be as calm as a windless prairie. He might even be glad to see me, though that was doubtful. We had not left on the best of terms the summer before.
I walked away from exhaust fumes that rose like river mist in the ice of the evening air. Three, four, five stars had appeared overhead. The shovel was in my right hand and I pushed back my cowl with the left. I welcomed the sting of the night.
Come then, your grace, I whispered to the sky, to the last flash of light, to the white road streaked with the dark stripes of tires, I find I am surprisingly eager to see you, to talk of that other life I knew as a young man, that terrible life. Perhaps it will be a confession that releases me. Perhaps it will be a revelation and I will see what I have never seen before. Perhaps it will be a resurrection and I will live again. Perhaps it will permit me to lay my old bones on my bed one final time and die a good death. I have no idea. But I am not reluctant or obstinate or afraid. Come quickly, your grace. I will not be hard to find. I stand at the great gate of Kyiv.






The Sixth Hour
SEXT
1933 - 1939

Christmas Eve

Sokur, Cello Suite Number 1, Opus 97 (Zoya)
Tur, Sonata for cello and piano in D Minor, Opus 14
Litvin, Vocalise, song for voice and cello, Opus 32
(Angel of the Neva)





It was like a bad moment from a bad film, an old joke that has been played so many times people no longer laugh, but grow irritable. It was Hollywood B. And I the clown who was doing the comic routine no one wanted to pay good money to watch.
It was only this – I did not see him, I did not see anything, my head was in another place and in another time. The other clown, he hurtled down the corridor, a heap of evergreens and burgundy ribbons, headed for the chapel. I ran over him, coming in from the barn, intent on getting to the washroom and cleaning the dirt and straw off my hands. We went down. Brother Martin, fresh from plowing snow, his skin still bright from the cold. We said nothing, of course, but he shrugged, got up, clutched wreaths and boughs again, smiled quickly and flew on. I got to the sink and scrubbed. The soap smelled like cinnamon and nutmeg. Now came the sounds of a cello going through the scales. There were cello rehearsals and recordings going on all day and into the evening. I went to my room to change into a fresh habit.
“Brother Nahum.”
A tall black shadow was outside the door. I was getting into a clean white robe and black scapular, just pulling the scapular down over my head. I looked through the dark tunnel of the hood at the long shape. Then it slipped into my cell. White winter light fell on its face and hands.
Spikes of frost.
The face cut and cut again.
Hands folded. Blue veins.
Baldness. A rock pared by centuries of water in a cold river.
“A man ages, Brother Nahum.”
“I apologize for staring. Your grace.”
“Hair turns from grey to white. Skin cracks and peels. Faces take on lines and become maps.”
“In six months.”
“Much less.”
“I’m sorry, I was changing, I’ve been working in the barn.”
“I would like to stretch my legs. We just made it in from the airport.”
“Where is your assistant?”
“Vasari? He is with the others, getting our rooms organized. I told him I wanted to meet with you alone.”
“Let me get my boots back on.”
It was noon and the sun shone silver through white clouds. Small snow came down on our heads. I pulled on my Merton toque, as the brothers called it, and offered one to the archbishop. He took it and put it on. We trudged through drifts up a hill.
“Father Abbot has released you to me,” he said.
“I know.”
“How long has Dom Alexander been gone?”
“September.”
“What happened?”
“A brain aneurism. He was 49.”
“How are you with the new abbot?”
“He is restless.”
A cardinal went across our path like a blood streak. I had brought the archbishop to the cemetery and Dom Alexander. I had not thought about it. My brain and eyes and feet had taken me there. Someone had placed a rosary of holly and red berries about his cross. We settled ourselves on a bench near at hand, brushing away the snow with our hands.
“The last time we talked,” the archbishop reminded me, “you were going to speak about your arrival in Ukraine. Before I cut you off. The years were 1932 and 33. I read about the genocide. Worse than the Holocaust. What is the name you give it in Ukrainian? Some say seven million.”
“The Holodomor. Not seven million. Closer to ten. Village after village. Town after town. For hundreds of miles in every direction. It did not matter where we walked or where we drove. Women. Men. Children. Rotting. Whole regions without life, life of any kind, except grass growing through eye sockets. Whole families, whole generations murdered. East Ukraine was an open crypt.”
“In something like two years.”
I felt a pricking on my cheeks and the backs of my hands. Part of me wanted to hold back, but another part with more strength and determination wanted the words to break into the light of day with swiftness and fury.
“They blundered. They should never have let us travel into the villages. No one understood the extent of the starvation. The Kyiv officials who let us go into the countryside were shot. The soldiers in our truck were shot. Days later we were dropped off Moscow had people out looking for us. But we had moved on, going from village to village, town to town, looking for someone, anyone that was still alive. By the time they found us we had seen thousands of bodies. My sister Yuzunia’s boy Nykola had seen them. The little girl who survived the famine had seen them. Torn up by wolves. Pecked and gouged and ripped by ravens. When the thaw came there was a reek like sewers. The flies began to come. And their eggs. We returned to Kyiv. Lovely Kyiv. All summer the west wind brought the stench to our nostrils.”
“Why was nothing done?”
“By the rest of the world? When does the rest of the world ever care about anything that doesn’t affect their money or oil or pride? Some journalists tried to write about it. Muggeridge with The Guardian. He reported what the British Socialists did not want to hear. The blood is on their heads. And Shaw’s. He was given a tour by the Soviet government, a guided tour. For such a smart man, a man of letters, a playwright, he was incredibly stupid and na├»ve. He thought, or he convinced himself to think, that they showed him everything. Russia is wonderful, he tells the British press, there is no famine in Ukraine. H.G. Wells was no better. The great British writers. The great lovers of Russia. They can rot in hell with Duranty and The New York Times.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Duranty wrote dispatches from Russia saying the famine didn’t exist. The Times won a Pulitzer for printing Duranty’s reports. He admitted later he knew the famine was going on, he knew Stalin had targeted Ukrainians for extermination. He felt as many as ten million had been starved to death or killed outright. But The Times did not retract his stories and they did not return their Pulitzer. He wrote in 1932, they will tell you, he didn’t know anything about the famine. He knew about the famine all right. It had already started in 32. I will not read their paper. I would not pay a dime, not a penny for their yellow journalism. They are the American Pravda.”
“Russia has voted Stalin one of their greatest leaders. He is a very popular man.”
“He is Russian feces. Nothing more. And those Slavs and leftists that worship him are the same.”
I could not sit anymore. I stood up and began to pace among the graves. I went over my own tracks again and again until my boots found the earth and made the snow black.
“The Olympics were in Los Angeles in the summer of 32,” I said. “That was more interesting. And Hitler came to power in 33. The West wanted Russia on their side just in case. The Socialists in America and Britain did not want the Soviet Union to receive bad press. They challenged the reports. They never came to see for themselves.”
The archbishop was watching me. He spoke slowly and carefully. “We hardly hear of it. There are no movies. Few books.”
“We have no film directors. Hardly any writers. The Russian Communists say it never happened. The Canadian, the American, the British Communists all deny it occurred. Just as the Chinese Communists say Tiananmen Square never happened, or the Jew haters say The Holocaust never happened.” I stopped and looked away from him toward the white and grey sky of the east. “Stalin sent gangs, thugs. They ripped open the walls to find the seed my people needed to plant a crop to save themselves from death. They tore up wells to find the seed, smashed furniture, shot men and women they suspected of lying to them. They even shot the people that came to Kyiv and other cities looking for food. Oh, the restaurants had plenty of meat and bread and cabbage. But none for Ukrainians who believed in private ownership of the land. None for Ukrainians who would not join the collectives. None for those who cried for freedom while Britain and Canada and America slapped their hands over their ears. Crops, cattle, seed, everything was taken for the Soviets.”
I shouted, “Stalin!” Then I dropped my voice. “I hope he is boiling in the blood of the murdered. I hope he is screaming. I pray the hands of the dead come out of the blood like claws and tear his eyes out over and over again. No. Better. He should starve and starve and never die, never find food. Just feel the pain in his guts, just feel himself rotting away inside, dying for something to eat, even garbage, even pig droppings, but never finding anything, just starving and crying and pleading, and the pain wrenching out his stomach and liver and kidneys.”
“Brother Nahum.”
“What? I’m not loving my enemies? I must permit their evil, look the other way, never condemn their wickedness? Love is a not a valentine. It is a white hot fire. It does confront, it does resist. Not only for the sake of the victims. But for the sake of the ones doing the evil. We stop them from doing the works that send them to hell. What could be more loving than that?”
The words erupted into the air. I saw the shriveled and starved dead. I saw smoke, flames, burning trucks and tanks, burning men, collars with the hammer and sickle on them, caps with the red star, rings with the swastika engraved in silver, helmets with the skull and crossbones. My words, finally free, swooped over the carnage.
The archbishop did not look away from me. Even with my back to him I knew his eyes were fixed. “It could not have been pleasant for you or your family.”
“It was the axe that cut right through the root of our Communist tree.”
“I am surprised you did not return to Canada.”
“Ian wanted to. My sister, his wife, Yuzunia, she would not have it. They fought like beasts. She became more entrenched in her beliefs in order to fight back. God forgive her, she was just like the Ukrainian Communists we have in Canada. Anything for the Party. Deny the famine. Deny your own blood. The Party was more important than Yuzunia’s own people she came to save.”
The archbishop sat under an apple tree. One apple high up turned on its stem in a cool breeze. Its skin was brown and shrunken. I came back to sit beside him, my head lowered, my mind and stomach empty. I did not feel the cold of the winter.
The archbishop waited a moment as I sat staring at the snow and dirt on my boots. Then he spoke, looking straight ahead. “Do you still think your sister Zoya, who remained in Canada when you traveled to Ukraine – will you tell me prayed in hate, that she made this genocide happen? To spite you? To punish you for leaving her?”
I looked up in surprise. “You and I must have been arguing, your grace.”
“Oh, yes. We were arguing.”
Black letters moved about inside my head and formed words. “She could not do that, your grace. That was not Zoya. She did not have that kind of power. She did not have that kind of hate.”
“I see.” He was quiet for a long time. Then he looked at me. “I only have three days. There is some pressure. I want you to get right to Zoya’s arrival in Ukraine.”
“You will not understand what happened if I do not tell you about Kyiv first. And Vinnytsia. About what happened to myself and Yuzunia.”
“I am not interested in your other sister. I am not much interested in you.”
“Uncle Vasyl. Yuzinia’s husband Ian. Their son Nykola. The little girl. You will not understand Zoya, your grace. The devil’s advocate will pick you apart again.”
“He did not walk away unscathed.”
“You will not understand. And you will have to come back a third time.”
“I promise you I will not be back a third time, Brother Nahum.”
“You must let me tell you everything. I cannot help you if I cannot tell you everything I know.”
“Help me? Are you trying to help me?”
“To get at the truth. Yes.”
“But my truth is not your truth. I want Zoya canonized. You do not.”
“Make whatever interpretation out of it you want. There is only one truth.”
“Really?”
He looked out over the dozens of graves. There was a feeding station nearby and he watched the sparrows and nuthatches a moment. Several white birds I did not recognize, white as the snow around and above us, were at the station as well.
“I used to think there was such amity among the birds at winter feeders, Brother Nahum. Then twice in one season I found the bodies of sparrows killed by other birds’ beaks.”
I hunched my shoulders. The cold was finding its way into me now that my anger had subsided and my words had left.
He stood up. “You are chilled. Walking will warm your blood.”
I kept up with his long strides. Suddenly, without wanting to or even willing it, I smiled.
“What is it?” he asked.
“I keep thinking you are going to break out into Good King Wenceslas. My father used to sing it to me when we walked in the snow and cold together.”
He stopped and looked down at the monastery. The chapel towered over the other buildings with its steeple and bell. We could hear the strings of a cello working their way over the snow and fields to us.
“It looks like a French chateau. Normandy,” he said.
“I have not been.”
“What do you think of the music?”
“It disturbs the daily routine.”
“Old monk. The daily routine. The music is for Lent and Easter, did you know that?”
“No.”
“The recordings will be released at Easter. Odd, isn’t it, playing the music of Easter at Christmas?”
“It makes a point.”
“Does it? It disturbs your spiritual routine, but it makes a point?”
“I did not think I would be fond of the cello.”
“The cello is the brown and black sound of the earth.”
He began walking downhill towards the chapel. The snow was larger suddenly and coming down quickly.
“Your bones will harden in the wind and you will not be able to talk. If I recall correctly, your chapel has a small balcony. Let us sit there and talk quietly. Perhaps the cello will inspire you.”
We came down, black against white. Men and women were moving back and forth between the trailers they slept in and the buildings and there was a dark path of feet. The archbishop blew on his hands.
“Even I am feeling it. I never submitted my report on you to the Vatican, the one in which I castigated you.”
I did not answer. Our boots creaked as we walked.
“I must get Russia right. Every detail must be absolutely right. I know how you feel about all this. I read your reports. But you must go over it all again as if we were looking at history through an electron microscope.”
“What reports?”
“That you wrote for the other abbot. The one who died. Dom Alexander.”
I stopped. He turned his fissured face to me. Snow melted like rain against his skin.
“Dom Alexander would never have given those to you.”
“And he did not. Though I asked for them twice. It was your new Father Abbot. I requested them in October when I heard of Father Alexander’s death. Third time lucky.”
There was great heat in me, in my arms and face and throat. The archbishop nodded and smiled like a fine crack in a stone.
“The monk who is always ready to fight. The killing in Russia was not enough. I know I am going to have to bend and twist you to get everything out. And I will. What happens to your soul is of no concern to me, do you understand? There are millions of lives at stake. I will pull everything out and leave you a husk. I can do that. But I will not return to Rome again devoid of the facts. Every fact, monk. And the interpretation of those facts will be mine to render to the Holy Father.”
“I could write him my own report.”
“Which he would never receive. Do you think he opens his own mail?”
“I look at you and I think, this is a man of God, this is a Prince of the Church, this is a man entrusted with the gospel of Jesus Christ?”
“Yes. Well. I look at you and say, this is a Trappist monk, this is a man close to God, closer, perhaps, than anyone else, except a saint?”
The snow made a tapping sound as it hit his cassock and my robe.
“We have come to fight, haven’t we, Andrii? As Gabriel and Lucifer fight. As Michael and the Prince of Persia fight. Look at your scapular. It is as white as your robe now. Perhaps that means something.”
He resumed walking down the hill. I waited and then I started. I made sure I did not place my feet in his boot prints as I had done when I walked with my father.
“A girl,” he called back to me through the snowfall and silver sky. “There was that girl you mentioned. The one you discovered in the village.”
“Yes,” I grunted, head down.
“She lived? Zoya knew her? They talked?”
“Yes.”

We decided she must have been nine or ten when we found her that spring. So a year later we celebrated her birthday, which we placed at the 11th of May, and named her Zhanna Yeva. She could not remember what her parents had called her. The Soviet officials typed the names on a form and stated that she was 11 years old, a citizen of the USSR. There was a cake. And a dance. We insisted on Ukrainian dancers. The Soviets in Kyiv grumbled. Moscow did not like to encourage anything that smacked of Ukrainian heritage or nationalism.
You must understand that it was forbidden to speak in Ukrainian or have books or newspapers in the Ukrainian language. At home we would use Ukrainian, and I always kept some novels and stories and poems in a closet. Most of the time, however, we were forced to read and speak Russian. But we westerners who had come to help the Revolution were something of celebrities and they relented in the case of Zhanna’s party. The dancers leaped and whirled and the young girls tied bright blue and yellow ribbons in Zhanna’s hair. It had grown back thick and dark and the colours shimmered against it.
“The sky and the sun, uncle,” she said to me, spinning so the ribbons swirled.
“Just like you,” I said.
Kyiv was good for her. She put on weight, grew tall, her dark brown hair became as glossy as a racehorse’s mane. The Russians called her chornee krasataa, black beauty. Kyiv was good for all of us. But that summer of 33 the smell from the villages and farms had put my sister Yuzy and her husband Ian at each other’s throats from daybreak to dusk. Both doctors, they would return from their shifts at a hospital in Kyiv and start in on one another.
“Stalin’s stink,” he would growl into his vodka. “Shut the windows, Nykola.”
“It is not Stalin!” Yuzunia would shout. “It is not Stalin! The Ukrainian Communists did it! They did it without his orders! That is why they have been shot!”
“They were shot because they let us see it. And Stalin certainly gave the orders for that.”
“It was only a few villages. You know that. Only a few.”
“That is why we have to close the windows in the heat of summer so we sweat like pigs? That is why the rot is in our noses day after day, week after week?”
“Stalin has been good to us. How can you forget what he has done, what The Party has done? Look at the apartment. Look at the food. The jobs and money. He has done nothing to harm us.”
“Not yet. When it suits him he will decorate the steppes with our skulls and shinbones, just like he’s done with your people.”
“Stop talking! Stop talking like that in front of the children! Everything you say is nonsense. You drink too much. You have lost your mind.”
“My mind is all I have left. It is the one thing the Communists will never have again.”
“Why did you come here with us? Lenin forgive me, I married a fool.”
In 34 the smell was gone, the July air only held hay and wheat and barley. The crops were good. We never forgot, of course, but each year the whole thing sank a bit further out of sight. We had no idea at the time that the deaths were in the millions. Officials convinced Yuzunia that it was only a village here or there that had suffered. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, had died. No more. Of course, she wanted to believe that. So did I and Uncle Vasyl. Ian never believed any of the Party line.
For many months, at the beginning, Nykola had a hard time, right through the winter, and this made Ian argue even more furiously that we should leave. There were terrible nights. Vasyl and I had the apartment next to theirs. We heard Nykola’s shrieks and Yuzunia’s voice trying to calm him down. Week after week. Wetting his bed. Unable to eat. Missing school.
“What will we do, Andrii?” Yuzy asked me one morning. She had not slept for two nights and her eyes were swollen, the skin under them black. She kept pulling her hair back and knotting it, then yanking out the knot and starting again.
“I don’t know.”
“Zoya would pray.”
“Yes.”
“I do not pray. I cannot pray. To thin air. To my imagination. Or suppose God is real? A monster who gives us a world of poverty, injustice and death.”
“Zhanna helps Nykola, doesn’t she?”
“Yes, yes. She strokes his hair like a sister. She reads him the poetry she has written. Oh, Andrii, I thought we had spared him the worst. He did not see all the bodies. Only a few. We couldn’t help it. How could we know?”
Nykola had seen more than a few bodies. Along one roadway we had been surprised by a fence of logs. We thought it meant the field belonged to a farmer who was unusually prosperous. But when we came up to the fence we discovered the logs were the emaciated bodies of women and children and men. Stacked five or six deep. Their mouths were full of worms.
“Perhaps a trip back to Canada might help,” I suggested. “If they would let us.”
Yuzy’s eyes flamed. “If they would let us? Of course they would let us. This is a free country. This is the cradle of a new civilization. But we are not gypsies. I brought my family to Russia to make a difference. We are not going to run back to the Capitalists just because we had a bad week.”
So nothing was done. Yuzunia hoped that, over time, the nightmares would disappear and the memories fade like ink. Nykola joined the Young Communists with Zhanna Yeva, they marched and learned the songs and were taught how to handle a rifle. I lectured at a college, Yuzy and Ian practiced medicine, Uncle Vasyl swept the streets and kept the lawns of Party officials green and the grounds of Soviet government buildings pristine.
“I came to the Soviet Union to make the world beautiful,” he grunted to me one evening when we were alone together, carving away at a large kolbassa and drinking warm beer. Our eyes met and he smiled slowly and shrugged.
I suppose it was Zhanna Yeva who brought about the greatest changes in Nykola, more than time, more than sweet air, more than the red Communist scarf at his throat. They held hands, were always going on walks along Kreshchatyk Street or spending hours at places on the west bank of the Dneiper, throwing stones in the river, reading each other their own stories, yes, Nykola was writing some small things then, Zhanna read her poems to him. When we were there Kreshchatyk was named after a Communist diplomat who had been murdered in Switzerland, so it was Vaclav Vorovsky Street. All the old buildings were almost perfect, they were being repaired from the damage caused by the civil war and the fighting after the Revolution – the Germans had occupied Kyiv, the Ukrainians, the Poles, then finally the Bolsheviks, back and forth, in and out. They ripped up the tramlines in 35, 36 and put in trolleybuses. A mess but the street retained its charm, certainly for the pair of them, they were what, 14 and 16, Zhanna Yeva the youngest, but to us she seemed the older of the two.

“Brother Nahum. I do not want every dot and tittle of your family’s life. I know Zoya did not come to Ukraine until 1939. Could we please move ahead to that date?”
We were sitting in the balcony of the chapel looking down upon a female cellist with hair that glowed like a blast furnace. They asked us not to talk when actual recording was going on, but that had not yet occurred. The room was warmer than usual and our clothing was drying rapidly from the snow. I listened to the cello line and nodded.
“You want me to hurry. Time is short. But the story is not short. If you want to understand 1939 you will have to hear me out on 1936 and 37 and 38.”
He made a sound that was something between an exasperated sigh and a moan of pain. “Surely Zoya wrote you letters.”
“The first letters we received from her arrived in 36. They are part of my story, I assure you. But don’t you have them in your briefcase? Isn’t Vasari holding on to them for some dramatic entrance when you give him the signal?”
The archbishop looked down at his palm. He slipped a smile onto his face and then removed it. “I tried to find them. I expect they were lost in the war.”
“Yes. Lost in the war. Like the rest of us.”
The cellist dug her bow against the strings. The rhythm was staggered, the melody as dark as a cave, the sound strong as rock. The archbishop listened and then lifted one of his hands.
“Please proceed. I don’t care what years you talk about so long as you bring Zoya into your tales by Christmas morning.”
“Do you intend to sit up with me all night, your grace?”
“If that is what it takes. Though I have not stayed up for an entire Christmas Eve since I was eight and wanted a train set. I did not get the train set. I am worried that I might stay up all night listening to you and not get Zoya either.”
I waited as the cellist worked her way up and into a crescendo. When her notes began to fall to earth again I said, “Perhaps this Christmas you will not be disappointed.”

There was a runner. Always going down Kreshchatyk Street, Vaclav Vorovsky Street, training for the Olympic marathon. I first noticed him in 35, dodging around the workmen heaving the tram tracks up with huge iron bars. He was certain Moscow would send him to Berlin. Of course, Moscow did not send anyone to Berlin in 36. But he had convinced himself that Stalin would send a team – runners, hurdlers, swimmers, rowers. So he ran. His name was Sasha. He was good, I thought, fast, steady, never missing a step, never losing that quality of rhythm that is so important to a distance runner.
A number of times he stopped by our apartment block and asked for water from Uncle Vasyl during the summer of 35. Vasyl would be hosing the grass or flowerbeds. Sasha always seemed to get his timing right with Uncle Vasyl. How did he do that? Vasyl had many lawns and flowerbeds to take care of. But Sasha knew when to come down our street, knew when Vasyl would be there, as if Vasyl were some kind of clock an athlete could set his pace by. Of course they talked a bit, then Sasha would continue running again.
The Berlin Olympics opened on August 1st the next summer. Up until the last day Sasha was optimistic that Party officials would ask him to join a group of Olympians representing the best the USSR had to offer. Once he knew the games had opened he realized Moscow had no intention of honouring the fascist Olympics with their presence. I recall standing with Vasyl when Sasha came running up that afternoon.
“Well, they are not sending me,” he told us as he slurped water from the hose.
“They are not sending anybody, comrade,” Vasyl responded.
“We could have kicked their Nazi cans. Why can’t Stalin see that? Is he blind?”
“Be careful what you say,” Vasyl hissed. “Everyone listens to everything.”
“We would have crushed them.”
“In 1940,” Vasyl tried to calm him, “you will be just as fast, probably faster.”
“In 1940? Do we know where the games will be held in 1940?”
“They have already voted on it. In Tokyo, in Japan. Moscow will certainly send a team there and no doubt you will be on it. Keep training.”
“But we had a war with Japan once, didn’t we? So Stalin will use that as an excuse not to send us there either.”
“That was many years ago,” I said, “and there was no Soviet Union then, it was the time of the czars, 1904, 5. Stalin will want the Soviet Union to show the world its strength by 1940, show everyone the superiority of Soviet athletes. Keep running. You will do well in 1940.”
He smiled, he had two gold teeth, then he put the hose back in Vasyl’s hands and began to run again. All that summer he kept it up, right through the duration of the games in Berlin and on into September. It seemed to me he ran even harder now, and faster, and I would see him running in the morning, in the afternoon, in the night. I did not even know how he was employed. When it snowed, he ran, and when the cold took us by the throat, he ran. Then in November two things happened.
First, Sasha came up to Vasyl while he was shoveling snow on our street and asked for a glass of hot tea. So Vasyl brought him up to our apartment and heated water in the samovar. I was not at home, Vasyl told me what happened. Sasha put a great deal of sugar in his tea and sipped it slowly. Then he asked Vasyl if he knew about Stalin’s purges. Vasyl shrugged and said nothing.
Of course, we knew that Stalin had been executing Party officials all over the USSR, but especially in Ukraine, for several years. Vasyl had cleaned up the blood from back street shootings on more than one occasion, Nykola and Zhanna Yeva had seen bodies floating in the Dnieper, everyone talked about it in whispers, many feared they would be shot on a whim from Moscow. To tell you the truth, we thought the fears were exaggerated, and we did not believe they would do anything to harm us because we were revolutionaries from Canada.
“Do not pretend,” Sasha said between drinks from his glass. “You think you are safe because you are from North America. But you have misjudged Stalin’s paranoia. American Communists have been shot and sent to the camps in the north. You know the Gulag? Hundreds of Americans have been sent there. Most of them are already dead. Did you think Father Joseph would forget his Canadians, forget they also could be subversives sent from Capitalist countries to undermine his leadership?”
Vasyl told me he could not keep the shock or fear from his face. He expected that after having told him all this, Sasha would now go to the window and give a signal to someone on the street below and the NKVD, the state police, would break down our door. Sasha saw Vasyl’s eyes and the tightening of the skin over his cheekbones and shook his head.
“No, my friend, I am not here on an errand of murder for the NKVD, God curse them. I have come to warn you and to give you this package.” He handed Vasyl a thick brown envelope. “Everything is correct. Trust me. Get your family on the train and get them out of Kyiv. I have arranged for you to assist in the revitalization of Ukraine. Thousands of people, millions, are being sent to set up collectives on the land owned by those the famine destroyed. The two doctors, Ian and Yuzunia, will be, of course, invaluable. So will the one who teaches at the college, Andrii. The children will be asked to organize Communist Youth brigades. It is all in there. It is official, there is no forgery. We in the government know who you are and where you are going. Get out tomorrow. Take what you can and do not linger here. Any day a directive could come from Moscow and tell us to purge the Canadians in Kyiv. You are going to Vinnytsia. Do your best. Remain loyal to Stalin. Promote Communism. But try not to be so zealous you wind up in glowing reports sent to the Kremlin. Father Joseph will remember you then, and if he remembers you too often, one day you will be dead.”
Vasyl told me Sasha put down the empty glass of tea. There was sugar in the bottom. Then he went to the door and looked back at Vasyl. “Thank you for telling me to run. Perhaps one day I will run for a free country.” Then he quoted Pushkin: “One day Russia will wake up from its sleep and on the ruins of tyranny our names will be inscribed.” Vasyl watched from the apartment window as Sasha raced through the falling snow and into the dark. No one came to the door although Vasyl waited for the pounding of fists and rifle stocks.


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