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Copyright © 2004-2013

Ghosts

 Ludmilla Bereshko

Зозуленько , люба пташко,
Високо літаєш.
Скажи мені , голубонько
Де любка видаєш.
Folksong

JUNE IS NOT ALWAYS WARM in Montreal. Last year at this time hailstones the size of eggs came thundering down on the city. And conferences here, well, they don’t always turn out the way they should. You see, the whole thing really began when Nadia came here to give a lecture. She was never like other people, happy with what they had. Oh no. Sure, she was talented. But talent isn’t enough. And when she was here, she was mainly to be found in the company of her old school friend, Lastivka Struk, who always had a great deal of news.

“I’ve fallen in love, Nadiochka!” declared Lastivka with enthusiasm. “But damn it. He’s always so aloof. The great Serhiy Marchenko. I just can’t get him off his projects. Anyway, he’s here. You tell me what you think. The thing is we’re all supposed to go to Paris in the fall. Borys has a sabbatical. And I’m going to work on the encyclopedia. Well, why not? I guess I’ll just have to put that exquisite man out of my mind. Don’t look at me like that! The children will love it. They can practice their French.”

Everyone knows that women, and particularly married women, are prone to falling in love. So it should come as no surprise to anyone that Nadia’s friend, though a respected scholar in her own right, should venture into this area. Now Borys, her husband, he’s a delightful soul. Kind to the children. And what a son! Helps his old mother out every day. Why, she lives in the house next to them. And there’s Lastivka getting it into her head that Borys isn’t good enough, and she’s eyeing some famous professor. To tell the truth, this was not the first such incident. Many years ago, she had become susceptible to the declarations of a celebrated defector, and although the outcome was not peaceful, she carried on with her usual good cheer. In fact, even though she was well into middle age she remained an adventurer, a dreamer. She loved travel, for example. Now some people tire of it, particularly at that time of life, but not Lastivka. And after many years of marriage, her husband, who no doubt found some way of forgetting her youthful transgression, still managed to find her ideas of escapades to foreign capitals exciting. Lastivka was also a generous friend. Why, it was she who had helped Nadia to overcome her shyness in public forums.

“Talk to them as though they’re your students,” Lastivka would insist. “They don’t know anything anyway!” After trying this technique on several occasions, Nadia discovered to her great surprise that she did enjoy an attentive audience.

Now it goes without saying that people envy the life of scholars—the long summer vacations, the excursions to distant lands. But why, oh why does everyone forget the endless lunches in student cafeterias? It’s no wonder there are so many stomach complaints. Some do manage to survive though. It’s true. Take Pavlo Zhashkiw. He never gets sick. That’s because he only eats soup, and he makes a strict point of chopping raw garlic into it. Zhashkiw is nobody’s fool! When it comes right down to it, what can one compare to a bowl of bright red borscht with bits of crunchy garlic in it? No wonder he’s never been ill. Of course, he’s never been married either!

Well, there were people from all over at that conference lunch. Professor Zhovtonizhka came from New York. And so did Simma Stukalo. And Professor Kipybida was as usual going on about his obsession—diminutives.

“These nations have depleted gene reserves!” he said loudly. “They demonstrate frequent cretinism, for heaven’s sake!”

At the next table sat Oleh Vilnytski. Although he was already well over fifty and a recent grandfather, he never stopped seeing himself as anything else but an eligible bachelor and continued to wear the same yellow construction boots he wore in his student days. And there he was getting more and more animated as he was chatting to a local beauty less than half his age. Nadia and Lastivka were surveying this scene and discussing their own affairs. But before long a thin balding man with what could only be called piercing blue eyes approached their table.

“Oh!” said Lastivka with some surprise. “You’re here? Meet my dearest friend, Nadia Honchar.”

This was, of course, none other than Lastivka’s great flame! Polite conversation followed as it always does in such circumstances. The food was poor. The lectures well attended. That sort of thing. But quite unexpectedly Lastivka was called away by Professor Zhovtonizhka. You know, in the final analysis, people like Lastivka are really few and far between because they have what many others don’t—boundless energy. And it always seemed as if she knew everyone too, and even had some kind of special relationship with them. Nadia often marvelled at her friend, for she could somehow never be like Lastivka. It took Nadia so much more time to overcome her states of uncertainty and hesitation. But now she found herself sitting with the very man Lastivka had just talked about. And the fact of the matter was that the longer Nadia looked at him the more familiar he became.

“Did you ever live in France right after the war?” began Nadia. “We used to know some Marchenkos a very long time ago. That is, my parents used to know them.”

“Actually,” Serhiy Marchenko replied, “when I heard your name I remembered it too.”

Could it really be? Question and answer followed. Yes. They had known each other as children. Who says fate doesn’t exist? Oh, let it never be said that life becomes duller as we grow older! The unexpected greets the experienced traveller no less often than the unseasoned one. That’s for certain.

“You won’t believe this, Lastivka!” said Nadia to her friend who had returned to the table. “We were both in the same D.P. camp!”

“Really?” exclaimed Lastivka. “Well, you probably have tons of things to talk about.”

But then for some reason which wasn’t all too clear to anyone, the three friends fell silent and became even slightly embarrassed, and all assumed a more formal attitude with each other. Well, life must go on. Once the past has been recalled, what then? After all, countless numbers of people have had encounters with old childhood friends. And since Nadia was to a large degree a restrained person, unexpected encounters generally made her uneasy. After a few more minutes she thought it best to make her excuses and leave Lastivka and Serhiy together. Although it is often said that girls grow up to be like their mothers, this is not altogether true. At least not in Nadia’s case. It should be pointed out that she was not at all like her mother who would decide that if you so much as knew someone from her village, or even from the neighbouring one, you were one of the family. “ Tse odnoselchan ” she used to say.

 

II

Цвіте терен , цвіте терен,
Листя опадає,
Хто в любові не знається
Той горя не знає.
Folksong

THAT EVENING Dr. Ostap Hrutskowian invited almost everyone to a reception at his house— Professor Zhovtonizhka, Professor Kipybida, even Oleh Vilnytski—oh, everyone was there. Lastivka, naturally. And since Nadia was one of the keynote speakers at the conference, she was of course eagerly expected too. You know, many individuals are often surprised to learn that our people sometimes also live in fashionable parts of town. Why, even our own often acquire a look of disbelief on their faces the odd time they learn that a fellow countryman has in fact settled in one of these highly desirable areas. But they can be found. Not in large numbers, mind you. But here and there. And Dr. Ostap Hrutskowian was just such an example.

It’s often been said that the whole area he lives in, all of Westmount, should be declared a historical treasure! Where else in Canada can you find such unity of architecture, such splendid greenspaces? And Hrutskowian’s house was nothing to sneeze at either. Tucked in between two large mansions, the white roof and yellow awnings over the windows certainly did give a country club charm to the whole place.

As for the party, it was a delight! From the moment you stepped into the gracious hallway, the air was perfumed with freshly baked sausages and breads. Mrs. Hrutskowian certainly outdid herself that evening. Everyone always knew she was an excellent cook, but who knew she was an expert? Just one bite of her magnificent pyrizhky and you were transported to heaven. Oh, and the wreaths of bublychky she had everywhere! All that can be said is that they were an extraordinary sight! But unfortunately an unkind rumour was being spread at the party that she had actually cooked all these specialties on holy water. Little Cantor Palamarchuk insisted that during the Feast of Jordan Mrs. Hrutskowian gave him no rest and regularly pleaded for water.

“She wanted quarts of it!” the Little Cantor whispered. “And then she would cry at me and insist it was a ‘matter of life and death.’ After I refused her, she called Father Archipenko and told him he needn’t bother to come over and bless her house. He could just do it over the telephone. Imagine! And then she said I could sing the prayers to her that way too.”

Well, who knows? Perhaps she did manage to sprinkle in a drop or two of holy water, and that explained why her rolls were as light and fluffy as clouds. But cantors, and especially little cantors, are also known for making up tales. Good tales there was no shortage of that evening. And gossip too.

“She’s here,” said Lastivka to Nadia. “In all her glory. Or haven’t you seen her yet?”

It turned out that Dora Demchyshyn was also at the party. And she had, with her friends, launched a very nasty campaign in the kitchen against Nadia. After all, Dora could hardly have been expected not to be invited. She was as close a friend to Mrs. Hrutskowian as any and was also renowned for her excellent cheesecakes which she generously laid out on one of the tables. In fact, the two ladies often spent hours exchanging recipes. So it really was careless of Nadia not to have foreseen all this. The truth of the matter was that old Dora just couldn’t bring herself to forgive Nadia. You see, a long time ago, a very long time ago, Nadia had been engaged to Dora’s son, Yuri, and had unexpectedly broken off the commitment and married a wealthy American. Now she has the most charming twin boys you would ever want to see. One is just like the other. Of course, the whole Demchyshyn family was heart broken. And worse, Yuri never married. Fortunately for Nadia and everyone else, there was a bit of a reprieve from all Dora’s harsh words when Pavlo Zhashkiw rushed into the house huffing and puffing, red as a beetroot.

“Look at this!” he said in his sing-song Bukovynian accent. “Code.”

A few people looked at him in disbelief. Most, however, were by now accustomed to Zhashkiw’s outbursts because they had become rather frequent.

“That Bezkutenko’s got the whole top brass at Radio International fooled,” continued Zhashkiw. “That snake in the grass! He can’t fool me.”

Zhashkiw never went anywhere without his ox-blood coloured briefcase. It had gotten to that point. At night he kept it next to his pillow. And during the day it never left his sight.

“We just can’t be sure, Pavlo,” said Professor Zhovtonizhka. “Boyko hired him for Pete’s sake. He knows what he’s doing.”

“Damn it!” spluttered Zhashkiw. “Look at these papers. He changes the wording around. Minimizes everything. Every tragedy of our history. He doesn’t report anything that’s going on around here. Waters everything down. We have books, scholars working on these things and he’s still going around whitewashing.”

“Come on,” said Oleh Vilnytsky. “His Ukrainian is excellent.”

“Are you people naive?” said Zhashkiw in a loud voice. “There are bloody agents amongst these arrivals! What’s the matter with you?”

“Well then, go to the police,” said Professor Zhovtonizhka.

“I did. They’re not doing anything!” groaned Zhashkiw. “I haven’t had a decent night’s sleep for months. He knows I’m onto him.” But it was soon apparent that all Zhashkiw’s frustrations did were to fuel Mrs. Demchyshyn’s.

“You shouldn’t be so confident Pavlo,” said Dora. “What makes you so sure that you’re amongst friends here?”

“That’s right,” added Shura. She was one of Dora Demchyshyn’s oldest and most loyal companions. And before anyone realized it, she and Dora resumed their attacks on Nadia.

“Where’s your sense of fairness, Ostapchyku?” Dora whined at Dr. Hrutskowian. “How could you invite her? And us too? Books or no books, she’s still a disgrace!”

“Dorochka,” answered Hrutskowian. “Calm yourself. Your blood pressure.”

It goes without saying that the more important you are, the more people get to know your private affairs, including your medical history. And so it was with Dora’s heart problems. Everyone knew the minutest details, even so eminent a professor as Dr. Hrutskowian. But then she also told everyone she met about the open heart surgery she had had. Even including the plastic valves they put in. And sometimes she even went so far as to show parts of her scar.

“Can’t we get back to serious matters?” said Zhashkiw with an agitated voice. “Don’t we have enough without you ladies creating problems?”

“Ostapchyku, did you hear that?” shouted Mrs. Demchyshyn. “She jilts my one and only son and he says I’m creating problems! Do something!”

“Now, now Dorochka,” said Dr. Hrutskowian trying to calm her.

This was the wrong thing to say though. Dora just pushed Hrutskowian aside and marched out of the house, her large body shaking like jelly. It was hard for everyone to act cheerful after that, and there was not much point in trying. Soon Nadia left, and then slowly so did everyone else. To be sure all of this was quite embarrassing. But later that night Nadia decided that since she had created so much commotion, she would fly home the next day. After all, the conference was coming to an end, and she could speak to Lastivka next month in Boston. Lastivka was busy with Serhiy anyway.

All in all, Nadia slept poorly that night and for some reason found herself thinking of Lastivka’s friend. It is of course impossible to say what really goes on in a person’s soul, but Nadia’s meeting with Serhiy must have stirred something in her. What? It’s hard to tell. Perhaps more memories of childhood. Who knows? And the more she thought of him the more upset she became at the thought that she would probably never have another opportunity to talk to him.

But wishes do come true sometimes. And not only in books. For who should be outside the university gates as she was passing by next morning? None other than the very Serhiy Marchenko she had spent the entire night thinking about. And yes, he too had been thinking of her. Although this kind of thing doesn’t happen very often, everyone is aware it’s been known to occur from time immemorial, and each time it takes place there is always a fresh amazement that such a thing is possible. And of course, in sweet moments like these, who thinks of the consequences?

 

III

Ой поїдем в чисте поле,
Чи не знайдеш щастя й долі.
В чистім полі погуляєм
Щастя й долі пошукаєм.
Folksong

THAT NADIA HONCHAR! Such a dignified lady she always was. So refined. So well mannered. And what a fine husband! It’s true no one knew him very well, but everyone knew the boys. Beautiful boys. Tall and strong as oaks! So what could have crossed her mind when she was first given the proposal? Could she not have immediately thought of her children? Oh, this modern generation! Why, even Little Cantor Palamarchuk, try as he may, couldn’t till this day come up with an answer. And Lord knows he has discussed it with Father Archipenko and with Dora Demchyshyn, whenever she would listen. As the Little Cantor likes to say, “Stray from the church and the darkness gets deeper.” So succinct he is! Such pithy sayings. And so appropriate too.

As for Serhiy, well, it’s even harder to understand. It’s true his wife was Scottish, but his parents soon got over that. Why, she herself was often seen bringing the three children to Ukrainian school on Saturdays. And who embroidered their shirts? Roslyn did. Serhiy’s mother has been dead for years ! Ah, who really knows? There’s no shortage of temptations out there. Perhaps they will be forgiven. No doubt they saw that moment in a special way, even though Serhiy wasn’t what you’d call a young man any more and had even had his share of health problems besides. But then responsible people have been known to throw caution to the winds. And when the whirlwind of love appears, you lose your hat! That’s for sure.

Or perhaps it was just the spring time. Is one explanation better than another in such matters? After all, what’s more delightful than the Quebec countryside on a fine morning in June? Oh, there’s nothing quite like the winding roads, the small villages where the houses press close together and sit on the very edge of the highway, charming the skies with their sloping roofs. They’re dream villages. And this was where Serhiy and Nadia went on that morning they met.

They left the city and drove off to the old farm Serhiy’s father willed to his son when he died. It had been unused for years. Serhiy never had time for it. And as they drove they found a thousand things to remember. They talked endlessly about old friends and past events. How can one describe how they must have felt? Perhaps it would be best simply to say that Serhiy seemed relieved of a heavy weight from his shoulders and Nadia was freed from some rigid harness that she always felt around her. They were at home with each other, you might say. And nothing could interfere with their well-being that day.

“I’ll never forget how you and Sashko used to scare me by lighting matches and throwing them around,” exclaimed Nadia. “What ever happened to him? I once heard he got sick on the boat over and died.”

Oh, they talked about giving up their jobs, leaving their families, and even living out their days on that farm far away from everyone. They told each other things they’d never uttered to any other living soul. And they no doubt wept at times too. All of this must have been quite extraordinary for Serhiy. He was a self-controlled sort of person. Disciplined. Almost in the extreme. This was also something altogether new for Nadia, accustomed as she was to presenting herself in a very tailored way. All in all, what more can be said about how they must have felt? It was pure happiness! Two hearts ablaze. Two kindred souls that finally met. You know, many people live out their entire lives and never have a chance at this. Not even once.

“What ever happened then?” asked Serhiy. “Why didn’t you leave France with us?”

“The Soviets grabbed my father,” said Nadia. “That very morning. Right there on Avenue du Général Leclerc. Ready to send him back. But if you can believe it, he returned a few weeks later. Some of them jumped off the truck and he didn’t get shot.”

Who can describe all the details of their magnificent romance? For hours they talked. And the damp air in the farmhouse had no effect on them. It was pure ecstasy! They hardly knew they were two people. And with every kiss they drew their souls into each other’s. With each breath every past pain was eased. What more is there to add? It was as complete a passion as anyone can imagine. But suddenly there was a loud clattering sound, and for a moment they thought they had visitors, though it turned out it was only Archilles Desautels driving his tractor along the road.

“My father used to pick mushrooms with him,” said Serhiy. “Blueberries. Raspberries.”

Actually it was Archilles’ going home for supper that made them realize they were also hungry and that they hadn’t eaten since morning. But then this is customary with lovers isn’t it? Now they began to feel the cold too, and Serhiy complained of a sudden headache and urged Nadia to drive into the village for food while he found some wood and got the old stove going and warmed up the place.

As Nadia approached St. Abbé de Jacques, there was not a sign of life anywhere. Just wide flat silent fields. Not a cow, not a bird in the sky. And in the village no one was to be seen either. Where did they all go? It was like some deserted world. Some world of the dead. Her fears disappeared though, as soon as she stepped into the Dépanneur Chantecler and saw row upon row of bright sweets—pink Vachon cakes, Swiss Chocolate Rolls, and boxes of home-made tartes au sucre. What a craving for sugar one always finds in these remote villages!

Vous êtes déjà au camping? ” the young girl behind the counter asked Nadia. “ Je ne savais pas que c’ était ouvert.

Non, non, ” replied Nadia. “ Je suis chez des amis.

When the girl was adding up the prices Nadia noticed the black earth under her nails. She hardly looked more than ten or eleven. Already her face showed the strain of hard work mixed with bewilderment. The land is extremely rich in these parts, and it goes without saying that even the children are sent out to do their share. At that moment a kind of shame gripped Nadia. It occurred to her that neither her parents nor Serhiy’s had ever had the luxury to while away a whole day the way she and Serhiy had. There had never been a single self-indulgence on their parts, ever. This was a dark betrayal. Her parents would surely think that. A sin, an evil sin. Oh, what were they doing, this younger generation? But one more thing became clear to Nadia, and that was that if the real truth were to be known, it was their parents who had made this affinity between herself and Serhiy really possible. All of it, the affection and the joy were in fact propelled by memories of suffering and degradation that both she and Serhiy had witnessed their families endure. Nadia became angry with herself for indulging in foolish fantasies about living out her days on the farm. But as she was driving back she still couldn’t help thinking that even though they had to return, she would do her utmost to see Serhiy whenever possible.

In the dark the drive back seemed longer, although Nadia enjoyed it in a kind of melancholic way. And as she made her way around the sharp bend she saw bright lights in the night sky. Somewhere there was obviously a festival. Of course! It was the end of June. A magic time in these parts. Brotherhood and human fellowship were everywhere restored. And in every village far and wide there were parades and firecrackers. That’s where everybody was. At the St. Jean Baptiste celebrations!

She stopped at the roadside briefly and watched the spectacular colours. And with every explosion of red and gold the human cries of wonder became louder and louder. There must have been hundreds of people there. Nadia began to miss Serhiy and drove quickly past the wooded area near the river until she reached the farmhouse. But just think of the shock and horror that awaited her when she came into the house. There he was, lying on the floor on his back right near the old Franklin stove, his eyes wide-open, staring at the ceiling.

“Serhiy!” Nadia sobbed at him as she shook his body. “Serhiy!” But he was dead. Completely dead. She threw herself at his feet like Mary Magdalene herself and embraced his legs. She moaned into his body and could hardly pull herself away. There you have it. Just like that! Oh, human life hangs by one thread. That’s the truth. One minute you’re alive and the next you’re gone.

 

IV

Надлетів орел з чорної хмари,
Розбив , розігнав голуби із пари.
Folksong

WELL, YOU CAN IMAGINE the state that Nadia was in when she ran to Archilles Desautels’ place across the road to get help.

Aidez-moi ” she cried. “ Serhiy est mort!

Hein?

Serhiy Marchenko. Serhiy Marchenko ton voisin.

Comment ça? Ou est Roslyn? ” Archilles asked in his gruffy voice.

This was of course the hardest part for Nadia when she was asked where Serhiy’s wife was. But although she was upset, she wasn’t so upset that she couldn’t think fast.

A Montréal! ” she said. “ Je suis la cousine.

She told Archilles and his wife that when she’d got back from the village, she had found him dead. Just like that. Dead. Giselle rushed to the telephone for an ambulance.

B’ en téléphone donc à Roslyn, ” she cried.

Non, non, ” Nadia answered. And she told them that as soon as Serhiy was looked after, she was going to drive straight into town to get her.

Well, you can also imagine how amazing it was that although Nadia felt more and more numb with each passing minute and although all she really wanted in life was to stay with Serhiy’s body, she was nevertheless able to drive correctly. She stopped at all the lights despite the fact that the country roads were empty at this hour, and you could say she even kept to just a touch below the speed limit. But as she approached the city she realized that her alternatives had evaporated. Lastivka? No, Lastivka would never forgive her. As for Serhiy’s wife, Nadia was terrified at the thought. What was

Nadia supposed to do? Naturally she might have thought of this before she agreed to her preposterous adventure. What did they think? That God didn’t see their actions? That he doesn’t interfere when he feels he has to?

Really Nadia had no other choice but to go to the rectory that evening. So she decided that Father Archipenko was the only one to help in this nightmare. After all, even though Nadia wasn’t religious, he was a priest and she recalled that he had recently written on the divine Skovoroda. Surely a man of God and especially one who took an interest in poetry would understand the sins and struggles of the human soul and know what to do in such an unbelievable situation.

But Father Archipenko was off in Covey Hill. By the way, it must be mentioned that old Kateryna Holoborodko never calls Covey Hill anything else but ‘Heaven’s Doorstep.’ That’s how beautiful she says it is around there. In an amazing coincidence, just at that time her husband, Mykhalko, happened to be hovering between life and death himself. It seems he had taken a very bad fall from his pear tree which he insisted on pruning in order to improve the harvest. His condition was so bad she had called Father Archipenko who had rushed immediately out there. And that was why the job of telling Serhiy’s wife about her husband’s death fell to none other than Little Cantor Palamarchuk, although it must be remembered that before the Little Cantor made the fateful telephone call to unsuspecting Mrs. Marchenko, he must have spent well over an hour talking to a by now hysterical Nadia Honchar. It was all her fault she kept saying. She was lost forever. Then she would sob and cry out saying that life was impossible without Serhiy, that he wasn’t dead at all, and that what had happened was really just a terrible dream. All this was, of course, too much for one man to deal with, even a cantor—infidelity, death, and what’s more, the heavy responsibility of informing the poor man’s wife of these tragic events.

Was it any surprise then that it was only at the last minute, when he was actually dialing the number, that the Little Cantor was able to decide on a course of action?

“A terrible accident has taken place, Mrs. Marchenko.... At your farm. Yes... I’m afraid so.” Mrs. Marchenko could hardly speak when the Little Cantor finally told her that Serhiy was no more. She began to stammer and became quite confused.

“It really would be best if you came first to the rectory, Mrs. Marchenko. I’ll send someone right away to pick you up.”

But oh, how true it is! Misery never walks alone. Why, just as they were waiting for Serhiy’s wife to arrive, what should occur but a furious ringing at the doorbell.

“Where’s Father Archipenko?” It was Dora Demchyshyn. “A catastrophe!”

“Yes. Yes. We’ve notified her, Dora,” said the Little Cantor. “She’s on her way. Calm yourself.”

“Who’s on her way?” she snapped at him. “What are you prattling about? Haven’t you heard what’s going on? Where’s Father Archipenko?”

“At Holoborodko’s. What in the world has happened?”

“Tell me, Lord in heaven, why are we not like other people!” Mrs. Demchyshyn sighed. “Zhashkiw’s about to break into Bezkutenko’s apartment and no one knows how to stop him!”

Impossible as this was to believe, it turned out that Pavlo Zhashkiw had all kinds of complicated electrical listening devices—oh, microphones, tape-recorders, things no normal person would know where to get—all over his kitchen table, and he was preparing that very night to plant them all in Bezkutenko’s apartment.

“Poor Pavlo. You know what he says?” Dora declared. “The police aren’t doing anything. And what’s worse, he’s scared to death. He’s sure some agent is going to kill him. Bezkutenko knows Pavlo suspects him. Oh, for heaven’s sake, when’s Father Archipenko coming back?”

The Little Cantor was beside himself.

“The devil’s never napping. Oh, the devil’s never napping,” he muttered to himself.

There was Nadia walking about as though she were haunted, tears streaming from her silent face. And now, who was adding to all this confusion but Dora Demchyshyn, sighing and puffing and moaning about how the whole community was about to be destroyed. But you know what they say. When there’s a fox at the door, who’s interested in a mouse? All of a sudden, as soon as Dora found out just why Nadia was at the rectory that night, she forgot all about Pavlo Zhashkiw and his listening devices. Just like that.

“And what kind of a mess have you gone and made this time?” Dora snapped at Nadia.

“Please Dora!” pleaded the Little Cantor. “Can’t you see she’s barely alive herself.”

“She’s brought all this on herself, hasn’t she!” continued Mrs. Demchyshyn. “Turned happy children into orphans. And who’s about to forgive that? Surely you yourself Little Cantor couldn’t overlook such hatefulness.”

But the Little Cantor had the situation completely in hand.

“The Lord will help us out of this,” he said as he tried to usher Dora Demchyshyn out of the room.

“Never you mind, Little Cantor,” said Dora freeing her arm. “She’s done it this time, hasn’t she? Gone too far. What did she think? That life was one long wedding? Oh, this is going to be known. This can’t be hidden in some dark corner.”

Somehow the Little Cantor managed to convince Dora that she would be of invaluable assistance to him if she tried to reach Father Archipenko again in Covey Hill, although, after Dora learned that in fact the dear Father was well on his way home, she began to make one call after another informing everyone about the complicated events of that evening. The Little Cantor wasn’t quite sure of all the things Dora Demchyshyn was talking about; however he decided that if it weren’t for the telephone, he wouldn’t have been able to manage her at all. And when the doorbell finally rang, she was the first to jump up.

“He’s here!” she exclaimed. “Our saviour.”

In the meantime Nadia worried about how she was supposed to greet Serhiy Marchenko’s wife.

But to everyone’s surprise it turned out to be neither the wife nor Father Archipenko.

 

V

Ой зле в світі , зле чувати,
Бо вже правди не видати.
Folksong

 

“LASTIVKA!” said the Little Cantor with some surprise as he opened the door. Nadia promptly rushed to one of the bedrooms and locked herself in.

“Christ Nadia!” Lastivka pounded on the door. “I’ll kick it in if I have to.”

Oh there’s a lot of gypsy temperament in that family. They’re all Hutsuls, you know! Carpathians. Why, Lastivka’s father had the blackest hair you’d ever want to see. Black as coal. Just like his daughter’s. And the eyes? When he looked at you he pierced you with them. And when he twisted his moustache in addition, your spine shivered. But he was a magnificent violinist. You could just feel the mountains when he played. Oh yes. Many hearts would burst when he played at those parties.

“He’s got three kids,” pleaded Nadia. “And now I have to explain it all to his wife. Leave me alone. Don’t you think I’ve got enough?”

“You little rat!” shouted Lastivka. “Just because you were both in some bloody D.P. camp suddenly you decide you’re going to run off together. You stinking hypocrite.”

“Look, I knew him from before,” said Nadia.

“You knew nothing!” interrupted Lastivka.

“Leave me alone,” answered Nadia. “He told me absolutely everything.”

“Terrific! Now I suppose you’re the only one who has ever understood him,” Lastivka continued. “What else is new? You fool!”

Who knows what might have happened had the two friends carried on much longer? Suffice it to say that interruptions are a godsend, despite what some people maintain. All their recriminations were put to a stop when Mrs. Marchenko, the real victim, finally arrived looking bleary eyed and quite confused. Fortunately, Father Archipenko was right on her heels, and in a few moments so were the police. Suddenly it seemed that chaos was dispersed and everything would be clarified. Nadia came out of the bedroom. Dora Demchyshyn dropped the telephone. And Lastivka even rushed to take off Mrs. Marchenko’s coat. There were declarations to be signed. Archilles Desautels had to be contacted. An autopsy had to be authorized. But before all this could even be begun, Nadia Honchar was obliged once again to describe the unfortunate events of that evening.

Poor Mrs. Marchenko was in a state of shock, and so Nadia spared her the additional details about the personal connection she had to her husband. The Little Cantor, though he knew the truth, went along with the white lie. As for Lastivka, from her kind and compassionate behaviour towards Serhiy’s wife, who would ever have guessed that at one time she herself had had designs on the woman’s husband? Throughout all this Mrs. Marchenko maintained what could only be called a genuine Scottish reserve, though if you looked into her eyes carefully you could see the growing grief and the tormented heart. And several times she said, “I just don’t understand why he would go out there.” Then she looked at Nadia questioningly. There was, it’s true, more than just a hint of accusation in these words. Should she have been told? It’s hard to say. As it was, her life was sure to be filled with difficulties. Was it really necessary to rub salt into open wounds? But that’s exactly what Dora Demchyshyn tried to do.

“It’s an evil night, Mrs. Marchenko. One tragedy after the next,” she declared. “This kind of thing only happens when people are sinning.”

“Please Dora,” said the Little Cantor in Ukrainian so that Mrs. Marchenko would not understand. “If you carry on like this, your soul won’t find any rest in the next world.”

My soul? Lord! What are you saying? She’s responsible for everything!” said Dora looking askance at Nadia. “What more do you need? She concocts spells the like of which make our hair stand on end. First my Yuri. Humiliated and destroyed. And now, Serhiy. Dead.”

But from looking at her it didn’t seem as though Mrs. Marchenko understood what Dora was saying. And luckily in a few minutes the police escorted Serhiy’s wife to the hospital where her husband’s body lay.

When Roslyn Marchenko left, Nadia collapsed into an armchair. Father Archipenko paced back and forth a few times before deciding how he had to proceed with Zhashkiw’s case, and shortly he and Mrs. Demchyshyn prepared to leave too. Lastivka was also putting on her coat.

“Now what are we supposed to do about Oxana?” said Nadia to the Little Cantor.

“Oxana?” asked the Little Cantor, looking a touch perplexed. “Oh, of course. Of course.”

“How could I tell her?” Nadia went on.

“There’s a lot you didn’t tell her!” shouted Mrs. Demchyshyn from the vestibule. “Don’t worry though. It’ll all come out. Sooner or later.”

“It’s true no one talks about Oxana any more,” said the Little Cantor, ignoring Dora. “And it seems she doesn’t recognize people at all.”

“Serhiy said that he somehow just couldn’t tell his wife about her,” added Nadia.

“Oh, what a world!” cried Dora coming right back into the house and standing at the door to the living room. “Lunatics live and my Yuri is destroyed. Who worries about him? God in heaven! Is it true that you’re there?”

“Oxana’s not a lunatic,” said Nadia in a surprisingly firm tone. “She survived hell itself.”

“Yes,” said the Little Cantor. “All the devils came out in those days. They were the rulers.”

“Sooner or later his wife will have to find out,” added Nadia.

“There’s no end to misery, dear people,” said the Little Cantor. “No end.”

“You know, my older sister died a few years ago,” continued Nadia. “And she also became totally demented. I don’t know how my parents managed.”

“It’s no wonder,” snapped Dora. “In your family everyone’s deranged!”

“No need Nadiochka,” said the Little Cantor. He saw that Nadia was starting to get upset again.

“No, there’s no need,” continued Nadia through tears. “There’s no need.”

Mrs. Demchyshyn ransacked through her purse.

“Ah, you’re all crazy, you left-bankers. Too much of that bark tea. Nobody should ever get mixed up with you.”

“Please Mrs. Demchyshyn,” said Father Archipenko coming back into the hallway. “We’ll be off now and see to Zhashkiw before it’s too late. You’re very upset yourself and you don’t mean what you’re saying. Let’s go then. Everyone’s gone through too much.”

 

VI

Ой не спиться й не лежиться
І сон мене не бере.
Folksong

SO IT’S NOT HARD to imagine that there wasn’t much resting that night, what with all the comings and goings. Let no one say that a priest’s life, or even a cantor’s, is an easy one. Trouble never sleeps. And everyone’s worries and sins have to be taken on. Well, it was barely dawn before Nadia herself began to prepare for the long journey home. And the Little Cantor gave her whatever advice he could think of at that hour.

“I tried to free myself,” explained Nadia, “of all my ghosts. But now, look what I’ve done.”

“Pray to the Holy Father, Nadiochka,” said the Little Cantor. “Some say that love is a homesickness, I know. But when children are involved, it’s not right any way you look at it.”

“I never had any intention of destroying anything,” added Nadia.

“Then why did you go off with him alone?”

“I’ve really made a mess, haven’t I? And frankly, I don’t know any way out of it.”

“Couldn’t you just sit and talk together like normal people?” continued the Little Cantor.

“You know the devil is always dragging mankind into perdition.”

“I suppose so,” muttered Nadia.

“Pray hard daughter. You need the Lord on your side. Otherwise you just can’t hope to come out of this dark night.”

Nadia rose to depart.

“Please let me know what happens with Oxana,” she said.

The Little Cantor got up too.

“Nadiochka,” he said. “Don’t think about all that so much. We’ll look after it. Go on your way. I’ll tell her. In our village it was very bad too. Sometimes they’d take the half-living ones and toss them in with the dead. And my older aunt ate her very own children. So help me God. Go on your way. And put all this out of your head. God be with you.”

 

VII

Ой чого ти почорніло,
Зеленеє поле?
Taras Shevchenko

THERE WAS A NICE and proper funeral for him. Poor Serhiy. Whenever he could, he had always helped out, even though he was a famous professor. He never shyed away from his origins. It was a real loss though. When people die like that, cut down like stalks of wheat, it’s a sad thing. When they’re old everyone says at least they lived for a goodly time. But that’s the way things go.

After some weeks Mrs. Marchenko no longer looked so forlorn, and it seemed she began to accept the whole thing. That was when the Little Cantor decided he had better inform her about a certain responsibility she now had, one that she was totally unaware of—Oxana, her dead husband’s sister, the one she knew nothing about.

“Famine. War. They do terrible things, Mrs. Marchenko,” said the Little Cantor.

But he was clearly worried when a look of betrayal and injury came across Mrs. Marchenko’s face again. Nevertheless, soon after they both went to the hospital where Oxana lived.

Oui, Monsieur Marchenko est mort, ” said the Little Cantor to the nun at the information desk. “ Subitement.

Through the window they saw Oxana.

Parfois elle devient agitée ” said the nun. “ Mais d’ habitude elle est tranquille et tout va bien.

It was apparent that Oxana sat in her chair for days on end. When they looked at her it was hard to tell if she was dead or alive. Her face was a strange brownish hue, and she looked like some kind of Egyptian mummy. Only her eyes betrayed life. They had a curious quizzical expression. Her hair was terribly sparse and what there was of it was dishevelled. Her limbs were as thin as sticks, and she looked very emaciated. The nun explained to Mrs. Marchenko and to the Little Cantor that Oxana generally refused to eat, and on several occasions they found themselves force-feeding her.

Serhiya vzhe nema, ” said the Little Cantor to her. “Serhiy is gone.”

But it was obvious to everyone that Oxana just didn’t seem to understand what was going on around her. And then with a queer grimace, for no reason whatsoever, she began to recite.

Pechu, pechu khlibchyk
Mami na obidchyk
Shust’ u pich
Shust’ u pich

I bake buns with butter
For my mummy’s supper
Pop! in the oven
Pop! in the oven

Roslyn Marchenko began to cry at the sight of her. You see, in addition to all this Oxana’s arms were tied in such a way so that she couldn’t lift them to her mouth. Mrs. Marchenko gazed at the partly missing fingers.

Tse Serhiya zhinka, ” continued the Little Cantor. He turned to Roslyn. “I told her you were his wife.”

Oxana seemed to grin even more, and before anyone knew what to expect she became quite talkative, but the problem was she was completely incomprehensible.

Otse vchora tak meni bulo, ” she said. “ Davai, davai. Tie em bunches. Night. Water go, go. River. Bodies on top one other. But when Dmytro Koshedub come, he dead. Bodies lie em in water. In Dnipro. Coats. Many coats.”

She became quite red from all the excitement of speaking so swiftly. The nun decided to usher everyone out of the room. But as they were leaving the Little Cantor said that Oxana uttered some more words that no one could make out, and finally her throat gave out into loud hiccups.

“Serhiy was terrified of the dark. All the time,” said Mrs. Marchenko to the Little Cantor when they were finally out on the street. “A grown man. Oh, he would try to hide it. But then he’d go on about ghosts coming to get him.”

“People saw too much, Mrs. Marchenko. Too much,” said the Little Cantor.

“His father’s pockets, you know,” she continued, “were always lined with bread! I was sure he kept it there for the pigeons. I thought it was for the pigeons.”

 

VIII

Давно те мунуло , як мала дитина,
Сирота в ряднині я колись блукав
Без свити , без хліба по тій Україні.
Taras Shevchenko

THERE YOU HAVE IT. The whole thing. Everything that happened here last spring. Things are much quieter this year. Mrs. Marchenko has found someone for herself. A refined English gentleman. And maybe this time it will all work out for her. As for Mrs. Demchyshyn, well, she’s had several bouts of illness, in fact serious operations too. But she keeps up her good humour most of the time and says it was all nothing but “pelvic cleaning.” Lastivka has published a book on the Trypillian era and continues to live with her family in Paris. And she’s told Dr. Zhovtonizhka that she’s never been happier. Pavlo Zhashkiw was stopped by Father Archipenko from using those listening devices, and now he has submitted a huge brief to the RCMP documenting his suspicions. He’s still waiting to hear from them. And surprise of surprises, no one will guess what happened to the Little Cantor. Maria Wynnykiw proposed marriage to him. That’s right. It seems she made an appointment to see him and set out the whole proposition on the table.

“I’m a widow,” she said. “And it’s time you tried out marriage. My borscht is excellent. You can count on that. And my varennyky are nothing to sneeze at either.” The Little Cantor hasn’t given her a final answer yet, but everyone at the church says he’s considering her offer very seriously.

As for Nadia Honchar, well, her husband left her. Took up with an American woman. Nadia doesn’t go anywhere too much, it seems. And according to reliable reports she has aged a great deal and become withdrawn, and has lost all her elegance. “Looks just like a little old lady now,” says Father Archipenko. “All dried up and looking very sad.” Well, what did they think, those two? That it was love that made the world go round? Oh, if only it were so. She had apparently even told the Little Cantor that they had to go off together, that they had no choice. Serhiy helped her get rid of her ghosts, she said. Imagine that. Why, that’s a job for a priest! She even said that in her opinion they both saw the world through the same eyes or something like that. No one doubts that theirs was indeed a grand love. But just look at where it’s got them. You know, perhaps the truth is that love is really an evil curse. Why, people have been known to sell their souls to the devil for it, haven’t they? As the Little Cantor put it, “Are they better off now? One’s dead and the other is half-dead!” As for those ghosts, well, what can we do, any of us? Try to live with them somehow. Just try to live with them.

 

 

 

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