In the process of planning and researching the trilogy that began with the novel ZO (2008) I wrote many different pieces over the years as I fought to find the right voice, angle, perspective - call it what you will. Below I have included other works that I used as sketches to help me find ZO (The Alignment of the Planets; The White Birds).
This one was published in CRUX a couple of years ago under the same title it bears here. Like the material in the other "literary drawings" of "the painting" that would become ZO, this story is a prototype of what would eventually emerge. Some of the material was lent to ZO, some was not. So this retains its own voice and body.
It, like the other prototype material below, is its own story, though it initially contains much in common with Alignment.
The Migration of Souls
Savella 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 and crucifix 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 a while 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.
“Where is God in all this?” he asked her.
Swaying with the train, one shoulder against the side of the car, Pavlo held Mykhailo as the boy slept. The window was a square of black.
“Won’t you sleep?” Savella asked him. “I can make a bed for Mykhailo on his seat just as I’ve done for Lesia and Iakiv.”
“Yes, I see. But I think I will hold him for awhile yet.”
We are all returning to earlier days, he thought. 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. He touched the hands and the arms. They were 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 me 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 shifted 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 born?”
“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. Our Lord Jesus Christ will watch over us.”
“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, enjoying 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 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.
She did not remember falling asleep. The roots of trees seized ahold of her body, pulled her into the earth to feed upon her breath. She panicked and fought and forced herself awake, 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 Mykhailo. 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?”
She touched the silver crucifix at her throat. You understand, she said. You understand. You understand.
She remembered 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 pebbles.
“Where is God in all this?” he asked her.
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 ship had been a cattle transport. Now it moved people who also knew fear and panic and a sense of being trapped.
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 woolen 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 like 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 of the lower deck. He could see slits of light, the outline of the door.
“Where is God in all this?” he asked her.
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 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,” Savella said. “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 Mykhailo, 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 that might at any moment disappear, leaving Savella and her family abandoned to a perpetual horizon that neither began nor came to any completion. She started to think about cold water. A chilled 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. It was as if she saw angels. She closed her eyes as they brimmed with the burning whorl of light. Then she opened them again.
Now she was fifty-four.
She often said to Pavlo, “I am the young woman who came to Canada. I have not changed. Neither have you.”
After they had been working in the garden, he smelled like black soil and growing plants and roots and water. This overpowered the scent of sweat and soap and leather from his shoemaking shop. 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 their own 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 Nicholas, their daughter Lesia’s boy. Pavlo picked the cucumbers himself, getting them before they grew too large, and pickled them in huge jars swirling with stalks of dill. Savella 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.
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 prayed as she moved about the yard. In the spring she worked on the apple tree, 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 stretching 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 colour 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 stitched.
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.”
“How is the shop?”
“Not as many shoes. A few more boots.”
“All the sun will make the tomatoes rich.”
“Glory to Jesus Christ. Are you still having those nightmares?”
“Sometimes I am in heaven when I close my eyes. All the clouds are white and all the faces are kind. I see the village and they are lighting candles for us at Mass. Other times it is a hell. I wish my whole world, awake or dreaming, was peace, forever, just peace.”
“God has not made the earth that way.”
“I wish he would change his mind and make new plans for everything.”
“Some days we believe. Some days we do not.”
“I always believe, Pavlo. But life goes on and on and the pattern is difficult to make out. I get tired of looking and looking and trying to see how all the threads match.”
She dreamed again that 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 in the 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.
Pavlo touched her shoulder and she turned over.
“Fire,” she mumbled.
“You are safe enough,” he said to her in the dark. “Dream about God now. White clouds. Angels. Long stretches of blue water.”
“I am on fire.”
He got her a glass of water and she drank it, still asleep.
“The colour green,” he said. “You like that. Plants. Prayer. Candles.”
She breathed in and out slowly. She was riding a white horse between rows of tall corn. Crows flew ahead of her but they sang like larks. Sun coated her bare arms like paint.
Pavlo got up and 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.
It would have been better to have stayed in Ukraine. No, the German soldiers came and burnt it to the ground. Boots and guns. They put bullets in the air we breathe. It was good that we came here even if it has not been perfect. And whose life is perfect? God’s maybe. No one else’s. I should have kept the farm they gave me here. How could I? Nothing was working out. I am happier soling shoes. The children are healthy. Communists do not roam the streets and back lanes with rifles. No better than the Nazis. Stalin and Hitler came down the same birth canal. The children are well. Savella and I can die in our sleep. Plenty of Christmases left. And Easters. Plenty of prayers left in me. Enough for a second lifetime. But. What if I had gone further south instead of coming here? What if I had decided to take Savella all the way to the ocean before I built a house? I think I could have grown more roses.
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 Pavlo’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.
“Where is God in all this?” he asked her.
She smiled and the wrinkles on her face smiled with her lips. “You know better than I do. You are just throwing out words. You turn it over and over in your head all the time. A priest. That would have suited you. He is in all of it, Pavlo. From beginning to end. There is nothing that he is left out of.”
“Even the mistakes. Even the bad ideas. Even the sins.”
“He is an incarnation, Pavlo. He is in all of it. And he will make it whole, one piece, everything.”
“If you say so. Glory to Jesus Christ.”
She lay her head back on her pillow. The room grew darker and darker with the summer night and the birds made no more sounds.
“Even the fear,” she said. “Even the dreams that lose their wings and fall to the ground. Over an entire lifetime nothing is lost. Not even the grave.”
She heard his breathing. A car’s headlights swept quickly over the room, over his head, her face, their arms and legs and bed sheets, the crucifix at her throat, the dresser, the framed photographs on the walls, the rosary that dripped from a chair, the shirt draped beside it, the ashtray, the carpet, a pair of shoes. All vanished in the dark. She turned on her shoulder and closed her eyes. The morning would bring everything back.