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
“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,
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.