I was walking through the tall forest on a peaceful afternoon, as I often did around noontime. My best friend, Matvij, was with me and, as usual, he was taunting me about our age differences. He thought that, since he was eight months older than I was and had just turned nine, I had to be the first one to be “it” in our game of “hide and seek.”
“That’s not fair!” I protested. “I’m wearing white, so I’d stick out like a lone swan in a flock of crows. But you’re wearing a green kiptar, so you’d easily blend in with the trees and it will be hard for me to find you.”
“Alright, if you’re too scared to play . . .” he began to mock me.
I was about to come up with a clever retort when, suddenly, something caught my eye. Shortly ahead of me, I saw a white flower which I had never seen before. Matvij saw it too, and together we came toward the spot to observe it more closely.
As we approached, we saw how truly beautiful it was. The flower’s snow-white petals had very intricate designs and were just coming out into full bloom. Matvij and I wondered what kind of flower it was and whether there were more of the same kind elsewhere in the forest. But as we surveyed the area, we could not see anything like it. The two of us just sat there, admiring it, marveling at its beauty.
Suddenly, there was a sharp gust of wind that seemingly sprang out of nowhere. It awoke the grasses and the tree branches, which shook furiously in response. Above us, a kalyna bush swung around violently, so violently, in fact, that some of its berries dropped onto the ground. To our dismay, one of them dropped straight onto the white flower, its dark red juices staining the once immaculate, spotless petals. As the wind subsided, we stared in horror at the poor little plant, whose body had been entirely ruined.
“Come,” Matvij said after a while, in order to cheer me up. “If we get home late, our mothers will yell at us. We’ll find other flowers, don’t worry.”
But I remembered, as I looked back while walking, that I could not possibly find another flower like this one. We had approached it when it was white and lovely, and now we were leaving it red and utterly ruined.
We suddenly came to a forked path. This was where Matvij and I usually separated.
“Goodbye, Oksanko,” he said.
“Goodbye, Matviye,” I responded.
As I walked the rest of the path home alone, I thought of all the strange things that had recently been happening in our village. Nearly a year ago, Tato had been taken away by the communists and had not yet returned. I once asked Mama about the Soviets’ taking my father away; she just told me in a concerned tone that it was because he was a priest, and that he wouldn’t be coming back for a while. My older sister, Nadiya, seemed to understand what Mama meant by that and she lowered her head in silence, which indicated that I should likewise keep quiet, so I never brought up the subject again.
Then, a month back, the communists came to our house again, but different ones this time. They came, in their big black uniforms, into our kitchen and took away our food, saying that it was for the state and that we shouldn’t have any. I hid behind Nadiya, because I was really scared. She and Mama watched them in silence, as they rummaged through our house and carried out our grain.
We’ve barely had anything to eat lately. Yesterday Mama made some kind of flavourless broth that the three of us shared. When I asked her when we were going to get real food, she said with a smile, “Soon, moye sonechko. Very soon.” I didn’t understand how she remained so happy when we were eating so little; her optimism frightened me.
I was pondering these strange events when I reached the house. Once again, I saw the black forms of the communist buksirs, sitting in their angry red valkas in front of our house. I heard my mother yelling from inside the house and our dog Brovko barking, so I ran from where I stood on the path to the front door. Suddenly, I was stopped by a long stick that abruptly appeared in my way. I looked up at the furiously crimson face of the communist captain, who shoved me roughly against the side of the house.
I had no choice but to wait, as I heard the wails of my mother coming from the inside. Finally, the front door opened, and I saw several black-dressed communists coming out, carrying our rushniki, our beautiful Ukrainian clothing, as well as the last bag of flour we had to live on. My mother ran out wild with despair, and behind her my sister and our Brovko.
“Curse you!” my mother cried out, waving her arms about her frantically. “Curse you and your communist government!”
Instantly, she was struck down by the leader. I screamed and ran to Nadiya, burying my face in her apron. I cried for a while and then I wiped my tears and heard the wheels of the valkas turning. I looked back and saw my mother on the ground, her tears streaming onto the chalk-white pebbles. As the valka went, I also saw the face of one of the buksirs, who looked at me . . . no, beyond me, with a bone-chilling smile on his face. I glanced up at my sister and saw Nadiya’s own face, pale with
fear. We both knew he was looking at her. I could not fully comprehend it but my sister, who was a full ten years older than I was, completely understood.
I had hoped that things would get better, but the next month grew steadily worse. Mama sent me to several neighbours to ask if they had any food left. None did. Slowly, I began to swell. We all started to look and feel bad, since we had no food.
Early one morning, I was once again walking through the forest, anxiously looking for anything amongst the vegetation that we could eat. All of a sudden, I thought I heard a voice.
“Oksanko, is that you?” it said.
I turned around, half-expecting that I had imagined it, like the several loaves of bread I had imagined were in our kitchen during the past month. But no, it came from a real Matvij.
“Matvij, how are you doing?” I asked weakly, looking at his frame, which was equally thin to mine.
“Not very well,” he admitted. “You don’t look that good yourself.”
“It’s those communists,” I said, then lowered my voice, when I realized how loudly I had said it. “They’ve taken away all our food. Mama is not strong anymore. She’s getting worse every day. Nadiya is trying to help her.”
“I know.” Matvij looked both ways anxiously and slowly put his hands in his kiptar pockets. “Here,” he folded his hand over something. “This is for you.”
I looked in amazement at the tiny white puff in his hand. The bread was probably no more than an inch in diameter, but it was a thing of utter beauty to me. I immediately took the little ball of life and ravenously devoured it. Only after I swallowed did I think of Mama and Nadiya, and how I should have shared this precious gift with them. I cursed myself for being so foolish!
“I would have brought more for your family,” Matvij started. “But if anyone catches us with food, this could be the end of my father. The communists would surely kill us.”
“Where did you get this?” I demanded, savouring the bread flavour that was still in my mouth.
“Never mind where,” Matvij said.
“Do you know how much longer things will be like this?”
“It’s hard to say. The communists are destroying us at such a fast pace – not a day goes by when people don’t die or get sent to concentration camps.”
“I don’t understand it,” I muttered.
“Neither do I. I have to get home though. You must, too. It’s unsafe to be here by ourselves.”
“Very well,” I said, my energy revived a bit by that one crumb of bread, the first I had eaten in an awfully long time. So we parted.
I rushed home, picking up a mushroom or two I was lucky to find along the way. When I got there, I found Mama was awake. She stood in the kitchen, her face buried in her hands, bursting out with cries of agony. She looked up at me and, not noticing the mushrooms, said, “Oh Oksano, Oksanochko, Nadiya’s missing! She wasn’t in bed when I awoke and I’ve searched all over the selo for her. She’s nowhere to be found!”
“Mama,” I said, fearfully. “You’ve looked for her everywhere?”
Mama did not answer me. Instead, she buckled and fell on her knees, which were too weak to support her any longer. She raised her arms to the sky and begged God to help us in despair. During her prayer, she broke out crying and lay on the ground, not finishing it.
“Mama, come, eat,” I placed the two mushrooms I found before her, but she would not move. I heard her whisper Nadiya’s name over and over, and eventually joined her in shedding tears for my sister.
But things got even worse. Over the next month, I met Matvij twice in the forest. I begged him to bring more bread, pleaded with him to spare a couple of morsels for my mother. However, Matvij could do no more, he said, because the communists found the hidden food in their house and had shot his father. Matvij’s uncle had taken him in.
“I’m so scared,” he confided in me. “You would not believe it, Oksanko, but, yesterday, my uncle actually took my father’s body and we...” Tears streamed from his eyes; he looked away from me, ashamed. “ ...I think we ate him.”
“You ‘think?’” I asked.
“I don’t remember! Maybe we didn’t. Maybe it was just a nightmare. Maybe if I return to my old house, I’ll still find his body there. Maybe . . . oh, I’m so hungry! I’m sorry, Oksanko. I don’t have anything I can give to your mother.”
I got home that day, aghast. I wasn’t yet aware that people were eating their dead relatives already, but apparently it was happening. The thought appalled me. I wasn’t in that extreme state yet.
A week later we ate Brovko.
One day, as I sat weakly in front of our house, my spirits were lifted when I saw my sister coming down the path. I ran to meet her, weak as I was, but my smile faded when I saw her condition. Nadiya’s clothes were brutally torn and dirty; I could see her ribs sticking out of her poor thin body. She looked at me, trembling with hunger, and said, “He took it from me. He forced me to do it.”
I didn’t understand it then, but later I did. She slept in her own bed that night. In the morning, I woke up and found that she had killed herself. She was outside, hanging from a tree in our yard.
And so, there was only my mother and me. And that was only for a short time. For as I walked at dusk from the forest, staggering as I went and certain I wouldn’t make it home, I saw before me the fields covered here and there with dead bodies. Everywhere I looked, I saw at least one dead man, or woman, or child. It was unreal. I came near one corpse and recognized the body of my own mother.
I fell next to her, bursting into tears. That alone drew all the energy from me. I thought that I would certainly die there, next to her. I buried my face into hers, which was utterly white. I cried endlessly as I looked at her and at the rest of the dead people. Finally, I drew a breath, which I thought for sure would be my last . . .
Suddenly, I felt myself being lifted. I opened my eyes and saw Matvij’s face above me, as well as that of his uncle. They whispered some words of encouragement, but I didn’t heed them. As they carried me out of the field, I glanced again at the once beautiful fields, now splattered with the bodies of my people, under a deep red, communist sky.
They say time heals all wounds, but they are wrong. Time has never healed any of mine . . . rather it has deepened them, drawn blood from them, made them into the biggest, most unhealable scars. And although I am old and grey, never have I forgotten those years, from 1932 to 1933, when I was an eight-year-old girl living in Ukraine, and I saw such brutality, such suffering, such torment that I hope none of you will ever see or live through in your entire lifetime.
My husband, Matvij, died yesterday. Now I am alone in the world.
As I sit here by myself, I think of the death of my mother. I think of the rape of my sister. I think of my dog, Brovko. And I think about the flower I saw that day with Matvij in the woods. I think about Ukraine.
<2008 Writing Competition>