Tuesday, June 07, 2011

the alignment of the planets

As with the collection of short pieces just below, The White Birds, this longer story was also a prototype for the novel ZO (2008).

Some of the material was retained for ZO, some was not. So this story is its own entity and makes its own mark. It shared some of itself, but kept its own unique identity, taking a different track than ZO took.

I hope you enjoy it.

The Alignment of the Planets

She would not look through the small grey window of the

train. The night before she had scarcely slept, finding comfort

only in moving her body from one position to another, in turning

her pillow over and over so that she could rest her cheek against

coolness. She had climbed out of the bed and crossed to the

eastern corner of the room where the icons hung and knelt there.

She lit a small candle. Placing her narrow shoulders between the

splinter of flame and her sleeping family. Pavlo watched her. She

seemed to flicker and dissolve, to lose shape and substance. She

disappeared into the light of the candle.

In the morning the villagers had come to stand near the home.

The lane was dark. Pavlo emerged from the house carrying a black

case filled with the tools with which he made shoes and boots. He

removed the fur hat from his head.

“Glory to Jesus Christ.”

The villagers returned his greeting. Pavlo placed his hat

back on his head. Walked to a horse-drawn cart. Set his case in

it. His wife’s brother Vasyl sat on the driver’s seat. He remained

motionless as Pavlo filled the cart with bags and bundles.

The cherry trees moved like smoke along each side of the cart

track. For awhile Pavlo drew in the strong nip of burning wood

from the village. After that it was the smell of the forest. Bark.

Green needles. In a few hours, the sun hot, the odour of resin

overwhelmed everything else, the pine and spruce trees baking like

a sweet bread in an oven. The cart lurched and swayed and Pavlo

sometimes used a hand to raise himself momentarily off the seat.

Savella kept her head down. Cheeks glinting in small pins of light

that fastened onto her skin. Her brother held the reins in one

black hand and stared straight ahead. There were three crows and

they flew in front of the cart for several miles before they

exploded into a squawking and vanished.

Swaying with the train, one shoulder against the side of the

car, Pavlo held Michael as the boy slept. The window was a square

of black.

“Won’t you sleep? I can make a bed for Michael on his seat

just as I’ve done for Lesia and Iakiv.”

“Yes, I see. But I think I will hold Michael for awhile yet.

We are all returning to earlier days. The man behind me with

the cigarette. Who knows how old he is right now? Where his eyes

and feet are? Who is holding him? I am in the village. I am ten or

eleven. I am on the road that leads out of the village. I have

left my bed and gone to walk in the warm night. The air smells

like blood and like flowers. I see myself walking in the dark and

just ahead of my body I see a few willows, a few poplars, a bend

in the road, a creek. No one else is on the road. Over my head.

The stars are fat and yellow. An insect bites. The night is

purple. Draped in the branches of the trees. Hanging. In huge soft

folds. I am in a meadow. I am above the meadow.

Pavlo sensed that Savella was asleep and he turned his head

to look at her. Gradually the hands and the arms came to him, like

poplar saplings growing up out of the black.

The fingers are not small. The arms are pale and smooth but

they are not soft. I have felt them grip my back like white roots.

The Austrian border officials came on board with a lantern,

asked to see passports and money, demanded Pavlo show them his

family’s steamship tickets. Savella sat quietly. One hand on Lesia

who continued to sleep. Savella’s face shift from white to black

as the lantern swung in one of the men’s grip.

“How old are you?”


“You do not look a day over sixteen. What year were you


“It is there on my passport, sir.”

“Where are you from?”


“Why are you leaving? Is life not good enough for you here?”

“There is a country called Canada.”

“Are you sure there is such a place?”

“Yes. My husband showed me on a map.”

“God knows what sort of ships they will cram you into. People

die on such ships.”

“We will try, sir.”

“You are too young. We ought to make you turn back. Whose

children are these?”

“They are mine. My children.”

The next night Savella slept without interruption, a blanket

pulled to her shoulders. Pavlo now and then saw pricks of light in

the black glass. At dawn, long green fields unravelled from a

smudged sky and sprawled alongside the train’s iron wheels.

Mykhailo pressed his face into the glass, liking the sensation of

cold and the shiver of the pane.

They changed trains several times. White steam burst up over

their ankles and legs. They stepped through banks of it. A soldier

appeared in front of them once, his rifle slung tightly onto his

back. He gave them a fierce glance. Pavlo had emerged too suddenly

from a tumbling of steam, his face white and sharply cut, his feet

unseen. The moment the soldier felt Pavlo’s own fear he relaxed,

though a cool sabre still lay along his spine. Fresh steam sprang

over Pavlo and the soldier like a blast of snow, dissolving just

as it hid their bodies and faces. Pavlo had the sense of peering

at a person he should have known but could not recognize, someone

standing in a winter mist on the far bank of the village river.


“He is a German soldier. Not an Austrian. We are away from

all that. Pick Lesia up or we will not find our train.”

The night was impenetrable. The train clicked and shuddered.

As if it made its way through dense forest. Cars slapped by long

branches. Wheels tangled in stiff, thrusting roots. Savella

thought of how far away her village was and she had to close her

hands into fists as a numbing cold slipped from head to neck to

her fingers and her legs. They were among strangers. A bitter

scent of pipe tobacco made her throat tighten. She was trapped in

the car. On the ship she would be trapped. Surrounded by cold

water. Shoreless water. In Canada her isolation would be complete.

Impossible to reach her village. Impossible to speak Ukrainian.

Her children growing up among a people who had no use for their

language or their customs or their God. The roots of the trees

seizing ahold of your body, pulling you into the earth to feed

upon your breath.

Her head and shoulders stabbing forward.

She jerked a hand to touch the chill of the window. There is

Pavlo. There are Lesia and Iakiv and Michael. She felt an

explosion of anger towards Pavlo, wanted to spit, bent her head

and placed thumb and finger across her eyes.

“Mother of God. Take us back. Change my husband’s mind. Why

are you forcing us to cross over?”

The smell of wet earth steaming in the heat. The sting of

dill. A fistful of long grass. Crushed to release the tall skies

and the deep penetration of the rain. Poppies. Red with a red that

thundered like a forest fire. Wild mustard a yellow that cut open

the eye. Slits across her bare legs. Grass slits across her calves

and thighs and knees. Air in her face, air gleaming with light,

sagging with it, the sun slouching against her head and neck . Her

hair hot as stones, her fingers reaching up to touch, smelling of

oil and salt as they came down, and sweet. Trees whirling with

leaves, rolling one after another downhill, dropping like green

stones into the sky. The river beneath her toes, cool as the black

earth a spade overturns, moving swiftly between the banks, a fast

rain running down a hard-packed road, the long clatter of small


Savella lay in the hold of the ship and listened. Sometimes

the water against the hull was the brown river of the village.

Other times it was the scraping of human nails. She would cross

herself and turn her head so that she could hear Pavlo’s deep,

solid breathing.

They were hardly ever allowed on deck. It seemed to Savella

that all of them had become another form of life, creatures God

had not intended, groping, grunting, stumbling, in a world that

constantly rocked and pitched, sometimes gently, sometimes

violently. There was the perpetual smell of sheepskin soiled with

human sweat, a reek of wet and salt and wool. Urine and feces.

Sweet. Rotten. Cattle that had bawled with fright and jarred

against one another in this same hold, their flesh, their breath,

hot and honeyed with chewed hay and saliva. Savella imagined the

long fields of dark green clover, the purple and pink and white

blossoms, the cows stepping slowly, their mouths working, calves

yanking at teats, emptying themselves in loud, watery streams of

brown. She could not hold the image. For behind the warm smell of

the cattle was the pierce of antiseptic with which they had washed

down the hold in Hamburg.

The darkness rolled. Someone cursed God. There was a burst of

retching. The stink of stomach acid. A heap of rotting tomatoes.

Smashed. Open. Savella’s own stomach reacted. Tried to heave up

its food in response. She put a clove of garlic to her nose.

Another roll. Sounds of choking and the splatter of liquid.

Savella leaned over Pavlo to see if the children had been

awakened. But the three of them continued to sleep. Legs and arms.

Twisted. In the woollen blankets.

The distance she had travelled from her home, her sense of

being detached, of being nowhere at all, of living in a world of

long water, nights of deep darkness and unusual rhythms, all this

rose up to obliterate or stupefy certain habits and instincts, so

that another element submerged in her soul was freed and thrust

upward into her mind and will lke a tall, needle-like column of

iron. Hard, painful, but satisfying. The sharper and harder this

column became the more Savella drew her strength and purpose from

it. The women chattered around her, dark and white, moving their

fingers and hands, but she sat amongst them quietly, eyes on Pavlo

smoking his pipe, occasionally illuminated by fire, and she

nurtured the iron needle that drove up through her being. Her

hands were motionless in her lap, but not limp.

Pavlo felt the strength in her. The hard dark ore that had

been pushed painfully to the surface. His head and stomach became

a slowly turning coldness. He left the men and spent several days

near the ladder that went up from the hold to the locked entry to

the lower deck. He could see slits of light, the outline of the


The rain streamed over their bodies when the ship docked and

the hatch was finally opened. Every sight was extraordinary and

precise, well-lit and sharp-edged even in the storm. The shout of

gulls, the thud of hammer blows on shore, the hum of a fog horn,

Savella seized all of it, laughing to herself and holding Lesia’s

white hand, jiggling it, wind glancing off her cheek, her blouse

drenched and moulded tightly to her shoulders and chest. Salt and

water and cool air sliced like keen knives into her nostrils.

They boarded another train and rain fell away behind them and

colour dissolved the towers of cloud. Green hills peeled back to

stone and plain, trembling in the heat as if a great engine that

fueled the earth forced its exhaust up through a thousand small

ducts in the grass. It was as long as Savella’s hair, undulating

as if it were being combed from one horizon to another. It was as

slender as strands of water streaking over the rocks of a

creekbed. Twisting and churning and cracking open with sunlight.

“There is no end to it,” she said to Pavlo.

After many days the train blew out its air and steam and

stopped. Savella placed her feet awkwardly on the iron rungs and

stepped down to the boards. Persons spilled out around her,

tugging at suitcases and bundles of clothing and cookware. Lesia

fussed in her arms as sun stung the child’s face. Savella stared

at the stationhouse, at the windows and shingles, at the men in

dark uniforms with silver buttons and watch chains that spat heat.

She slowly made her way clear of the black clumps of people and

the station so she could see the rest of the city. There were

trees. houses painted white and made with wood, the sun yellow

over the rooftops and chimneys and over the grass and the bushes.

Away from the train’s shadow light flamed like a match on her back

so that it felt as if her skin were blistering. Lesia wailed.

There is water here. A river. I can smell it. The trees are

full of leaf and growing. There are no hills at my back or in

front of me. The sky is unending.

She found a bench and sat on it, shading Lesia by the curve

of her body. She gazed up at the blue light. Lesia became silent

and slept. A pain nicked and scratched everything within Savella.

The village was too far away. Pavlo was battling with the luggage,

keeping the boys by his legs, his face wet, talking to himself or

to Iakiv and Michael, jerking at the cases.

She strode in front of Pavlo. The heat made the buildings in

the city quiver, as if there were no foundation to them, as if

they were mirages which might at any moment disappear, leaving

Savella and her family abandoned to a perpetual horizon which

neither began nor came to any completion. She started to think

about cold water. A chill cup pressed to her cheek.

They spent the night in a large house where they were given

food and water and part of the floor to sleep on. Many others from

the train were also there. The children collapsed in tangled

positions against Savella’s legs. Next to them a heavy man with a

beard like a shovel raised his right arm higher and higher as he

argued with his wife. Another man bent his back like a sapling and

prayed out loud, an icon positioned on top of a small heap of

suitcases. Babies were crying on the floors above them. Several

windows were open so that a slender draft stirred about the rooms

which were bogged down with the day’s heat and odours of sausage

and sour milk and sweat. Two or three flies persisted in jostling

one another off Savella’s chin and eventually she grew too tired

to flap her hand at them.

Soon the sun took on a rich hue, like a syrup, and the rooms

glowed, the hair of the people in them shimmered as if it had all

been oiled, skin glinted like metal. Savella suddenly experienced

a surge of peacefulness in all parts of her body. She knew this

colour. It meant that soon the sun would set. How many times had

she gazed at this colour on the wheat, on the thatched roofs, on

the women hunched on benches next to the white walls, on the men

leading the glossy horses up from a drink at the river? Dust would

hang like a second sky. She watched the blaze in the room. She

closed her eyes as they brimmed with the burning whorl of light.

Then she opened them again.

She was fifty-four. But she often said to Pavlo, “I am the

young woman who came to Canada.” She still enjoyed his body. The

muscles were there, tight along his bones. She liked it best after

they had been working in the garden. Then he smelled like black

soil and growing plants and roots and water. This overpowered the

scent of sweat and soap and leather. He had smelled like earth and

crops and thunderstorms and sunlight when they were young and

lived in Ukraine. Even after he became a cobbler. When the farm in

Canada had not worked out, when he had brought them to the city

because they needed money and he could make shoes and boots, the

lines of dirt under his fingernails had become streaks of black

polish and his skin tasted like waxes and animal hides and tobacco

and dust. Then they had dug and planted the garden. When he bent

over his cabbages and ripped weeds from among his radishes and

lettuces and cucumbers, the strength of their growth was on his

hands and neck as he lay down next to her in the warm summer dark.

It was on Saturdays or Sundays and sometimes in the evenings

when they fussed over the garden together. Pavlo would encourage

their young son Joseph to pull up carrots with his cousin

Nicholas, Lesia’s boy. He picked the cucumbers himself,

getting them before they grew too large, and pickled them in huge

jars swirling with stalks of dill. She would point out something,

what worms had done, or slugs, or cabbage moths, and he would nod,

perhaps laying down a barrier of salt against the slugs, or

spraying soap and water over the cabbage leaves to discourage the

moths. Often she would picture the two of them as if she were

someone else watching them from the house. She kneeling by the

peas or beans in her maroon skirt and white headscarf. Her hands

black. He with his suspenders crossed over his slim back, standing

in the middle of the spinach and beet leaves, his trousers dark

columns rising out of the green, staring down, thinking,

wondering, a watering can in his fist, dripping, the spout rusted.

It came to her in the winter too, when she looked from the kitchen

into a white yard. If he had brought potatoes up out of the cellar

and cleaned them, even though it was January, his arms and chest

could remind her of the garden and the drenching yellow heat and

she would slip a hand over the bones in his shoulder and place her

mouth against the skin on his throat.

In the mornings she was alone in the backyard. It faced south

and the sun was on her hands and neck by ten o’clock. She worked

on the apple tree in the spring, pruning branches with a small saw

and a ladder. She loved the hot smell of the apple tree shavings

and would rub them between her palms, press her palms to her nose

and face. At the end of May she took a shovel and a fork and

turned the packed earth of the garden. She thumped the large

clumps of soil with the back of the shovel to break them up. The

surface of the garden would be dry but underneath it was still

damp and mud would creep up the sides of her boots to her skirt.

Dark slashes jumped across her cheeks. They dried to grey.

The seeding she did with Pavlo. She sprinkled the lettuce

seeds out of a salt shaker. Pavlo purchased the tomato plants from

a nursery and bent over, scooping with a trowel, he placed them in

the ground. As summer flooded the yard, she chopped at weeds with

the hoe, stepping back and forth on the narrow boards between the

rows. She enjoyed the shock that leaped up her arms with each

blow, the yielding of the soil, the stinging green scent of the

cut weed, the cool dirt on her fingers as she dug out the roots,

the tiny stones that slipped under her nails and bit. Her muscles

welcomed the work, she exulted in this stetching and binding and

swelling. Two hours in the garden and she could look up at the

blue sky silky with heat and feel she was in another country.

For Pavlo the garden was a piece of the farm that had not

worked for him and finally had not worked for Savella’s brother

either. Vasyl rarely entered the large garden plot. Sometimes he

came out and talked to them while they worked, hands in his

pockets. He brought up politics. How many shoes they had made at

the shop that week. He never mentioned the heads of lettuce Pavlo

held in his hand. Or the blood red tomatoes. Or the slim pods

Savella shelled. In a chair under the branches of the apple tree.

Pavlo himself never mentioned the farm. He had left it

behind. The dream had lost its colours when there was nothing to

eat. He had found a job and a house in the city. He had never

wanted to return to the flatness and the wind. Work in the city

was better than land that broke the bones in your arms and legs.

He washed his hands in the spray from the watering can. The liquid

mud dripped into the grass. The garden was better than the farm

had been. It could be controlled. Its distances were limited. It

grew most of their vegetables but it did not destroy them while it

did so. He could grip it in his hand like a boot that was being


His back hurt when he leaned over the plants and this annoyed

him. He could see in the mirror that his shirt and pants did not

fit as well. He did not notice anything if he just looked at his

arms and legs. But mirrors and photographs showed him that his

shoulders and muscles seemed to be shrinking. “I am crawling back

into my bones,” he muttered. Even his head seemed smaller. The

wrinkles cut deeper into the flesh around his eyes.

“At least something is left.”

“What are you talking about?”

Savella was sitting up in bed as he came into the room and

closed the door. He shrugged and pulled his suspenders over his

shoulders. He lay next to her. She touched his arm. He twisted.

“Your hands are like torches. In the winter it is like

sleeping in a snowdrift. In the summer you are a pot of steam. It

is impossible to sleep. The room is already like an oven.”

“Nicholas walks past our icons as if they are going to bite


“Lesia and her family are under our roof. You can feed them.

You can pray for them.”

“They still talk about going to Russia to help Stalin.”

“No. It is just an idea. Each year they grow out of it a

little. They will live more and more here. Instead of out there.”

“How is the shop?”

“Not as many shoes. A few more boots.”

“All the sun will make the tomatoes rich.”

She stood in the middle of the prairie. It had become a

desert. The grass was gone and all the crops. Some stubble poked

like fork prongs up through the dirty yellow sand. A wind was

beginning over the flatness. Now and then it surged and yanked a

fence post out of the ground and hurled it several hundred feet.

It snapped three strands of barbed wire. They began to lash at the

ground. A small house was at a distance. Shingles burst from the

roof like a flock of crows. The open windows kept staring at her

with darkness. Boards were pried loose and tossed into the air.

Through the dust the sun suddenly struck her like an axe across

the face. Her hand came away from her face without any blood on

it. But her cheeks were burning. Flames sprang up her legs and her

skirt exploded. Her hair crackled and when she opened her mouth

black and greasy smoke poured out from between her teeth.

Michael sat on the porch. There were no lights on in the

house. The street was completely dark. His sleeves were rolled up

and his shirt unbuttoned to the middle of his chest. He was

smoking cigarettes down close to his fingers. The elm leaves would

move as if something were leaping from branch to branch. He could

hear the sound of tires rolling over the pavement on Main Street.

A leaf clattered as it fell down through branches and twigs. He

remembered swaying from side to side in the dark as a cart rattled

between cherry trees. The stars had been fastened to the trees

just as they were tonight. Warm and sticky and motionless. Father

had cleaned a fish once under stars as heavy as crushed rock. The

blood had no colour.

Everything is long and black and comfortable. I shouldn’t

have to get up. I ought to be able to stay here. There’s no

people. No shouting. No talking. No shoes scraping over the

gravel. No cars. No light. I’m warm. I’m not thinking. I’m

watching the blackness move over the city. I’m smelling the grass

and the bark on the elms. The cool dampness growing over the lawns

and bushes. Why should I have to get up?

More leaves crashed down through the branches and onto the

road. They were as loud as stones. An insect snarled near

Michael’s arm and disappeared. For an instant he was conscious of

a rose and then there was a breath of dust. He fell asleep. The

leaves continued to drop, landing on the ground with a crack, as

if something small was being broken in two.

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