YOU REMEMBER OLD MARTA—the one who was always wearing someone else’s rags? You know, she was forever pulling that wooden cart behind her and filling it up with scrap. Well, all of a sudden we realized she wasn’t making her rounds any more. Disappeared from the neighbourhood streets entirely. Old Osadchuk heard some rumour that she had gone to Florida with a widower who had twenty thousand in the bank, but I never believed it. The men even joked that she was going to find a few thousand herself if she kept looking through garbage cans in Miami. What with all those rich cronies it was a sure thing. Everyone was saying it. But she had her Miami alright. In the hospital. It turned out she had fainted on Sauvé Street and was taken away in an ambulance.
So we began to feel sorry for her. You would too if you saw the way she was brought back home from the hospital. Thin. Yellow. It was terrible. And there was no one to look after her, so Stringbean Olga, Shura Makitra, myself—oh, all the ladies lent her a helping hand. I tried to straighten up the house every once in a while, but that house was even worse than it used to be. Sofas, chairs, and tables crowding every room. And I’d hate to tell you what she used for sheets. Old bedspreads. Picked out of some garbage can, no doubt. I had to run home and bring her some of my own.
Well, about two weeks must have passed and we started noticing a really awful smell in her house. It always smelled a little bad from all the old junk she kept in it, but this was like something rotten. We thought it must be the illness, so no one said a word. But one night it was Nadia Bereziuk’s turn to keep vigil. You know Nadia. Has to poke her nose in everywhere. And she was the one who figured out that the smell was coming from somewhere in the front room. Maybe all those jungle plants, she thought. But it wasn’t them. She found it soon enough though, behind the sliding doors where no one ever bothered to look. And in there, in that little room, let me tell you, in all my years I have never seen anything like it. It was a museum. Carton boxes from the floor to the ceiling, one piled on top of the other. Broken dolls, old clothes, coats, papers, bottles. Even a sack of sprouting potatoes. That’s nothing though. Everybody buys potatoes for the winter. But you should have seen the jars.
Unbelievable! There in the middle stood two huge pickling jars filled with brown stuff. There were patches of mold floating on top. There were bugs— black ones, white ones, everywhere. And the stink! Imagine! She was saving the soups we had been making for her. For what, God only knows.
The next morning Stringbean Olga found Marta bent over on the sofa, dead. How she ever had the strength to get out of bed and walk across the house, I’ll never know. Anyhow, Father Archipenko took care of the formalities. A good thing too. What could we have done? She had no family or anyone else. And everything went very well, thank God. Father Archipenko conducted a nice mass, and on the way home from church, some of the neighbours started talking about Marta. Shura said she was so adept with herbs, she could cure almost anything and even knew which ones could get rid of babies. But Stringbean Olga didn’t like us talking about her, especially now that she was dead. Well, you know Stringbean Olga. She’s not exactly what you’d call completely normal either, keeping that brother of hers in the house all the time like she does. Anyhow, she told us some of her own stories, about a fellow from her village who didn’t want to be drafted into the army, so he lived in a dugout in the day and visited his wife at night. That’s when he did the chores, you see. The wife in the meantime started going to the gypsies. She took to dressing like them, reading fortunes around the village, until she finally lost all her senses. She took to running through the fields naked every time there was a full moon. Oh, all sorts of things happen on this earth. As for Marta, well, she had her pension, you know. God bless her wherever she may be. Mine is not the place to judge the dead.
But wait till you hear about the funeral. We were all quietly standing in church listening to Father Archipenko’s final prayers, when all of a sudden, as though from nowhere, I heard this terrible wail. Then there in front of us, a woman was embracing Marta’s body, and sobbing. Sobbing in the worst imaginable way. No one knew who she was, but what a sight! Her coat was enormous. Ten sizes too big. Held together with safety pins. And she was a huge woman and very round too. The galoshes on her feet were no better. How can you walk into church with such muddy shoes? Before we know it she’s bent right on top of Marta, crying so hard it seemed as though the casket might just slide off the stand from so much weight. Such a fright I had! And what if the body fell to the floor? But just at that moment the pall-bearers came in and she was pulled away.
At the cemetery it was even worse. My God, how she screamed and cried when they lowered the coffin. You know they had one of those machines? And she fell flat on her stomach right beside it, moaning. We all felt so sorry for her. But you’ll never guess who she was. Marta’s sister! Who would have thought that Marta had a sister here in Canada?
She never once mentioned her. And it wasn’t as though we didn’t know anything about her life. Shura used to visit her often enough and Marta told her things. How Andrei was taken away, how they came into the house, how she lost her two babies in the famine. But a sister in Canada? You can never tell what secrets people have, that’s what I always say.
Her name was Xenia, poor woman. Father Archipenko found that out on the way back to Marta’s house where Nellia Ostapivna had been preparing some food for us. Thank God for Nellia. She made everything. Borscht, varennyky—with cheese, with potatoes. Everyone was stuffing themselves as if they hadn’t seen a loaf of bread in weeks. You’d think Marta had been buried ages ago and not that very morning. I really don’t know about people sometimes. And Osadchuk, well, you can put anything in front of him. He’ll eat it. Anything and everything. For every cabbage roll he eats, he drinks two shots of whiskey. He’ll down a bottle before you can say ‘Kamianets Podil’sky.’ I really felt quite funny about Xenia seeing how we had spread ourselves out in her dead sister’s house, so I tried to explain some of the circumstances. But she hardly seemed to listen. Wouldn’t talk either. She just looked at everything in the house as if she came from a different world and wouldn’t touch a thing to eat no matter what I said.
Well, I couldn’t pay too much attention to her because after all their eating and drinking the men had started an argument about the mushrooms Nellia had served. Ostapiv refused to believe that Vasyl’ Makitra had picked them on Henri-Bourassa Boulevard. I must say, it was hard to believe, what with all those fumes. And they were so good! Beautiful mushrooms! But you ask Makitra today, he’ll tell you the same thing. He picks mushrooms on the boulevard. So Maxym Bereziuk started teasing him about it. What can you expect from these men? Right away they start to fight about the best places for picking mushrooms. One says around Highway 9. The other says the Eastern Townships. Ostapiv says the Carpathian mountains.
Of course, Bereziuk sides with him. Hutsuls, Galicians, they’re all the same. Soon they’re naming mushrooms and chirping away about how beautiful their forests are. This mushroom smelled of honey. That one was white as snow. Next Bereziuk says that their mushrooms were famous even in European manor houses. Delicacies served on fine porcelain. And Eastern Ukrainians didn’t know anything about such matters. Finally Osadchuk had enough. He slammed his fist on the table so hard all the dishes jumped up. “You can all go to devil with your fancy Austrian and Polish mushrooms,” he yelled at Ostapiv, Bereziuk, and the others. “We were lucky if we found a mushroom at all! A dead dog was a delicacy. Or maybe you were lucky enough to be dipping mushrooms in cream and licking your fingers while we were swelling up like mushrooms ourselves.” He went on like this for a some time, poor fellow. Couldn’t stop once he started. Kept grabbing his head and wiping his eyes. Xenia just sat there, as if she were made of stone.
But just then Nadia Bereziuk’s daughter, Myroslava, came in with her baby. She carried him around, kissing and biting his chubby legs. “Oh, my little delicious one,” she kept saying. “My little sparrow.” He’s so adorable. Makitra took him and tossed him around. Then Nellia took him and so on till he was sitting on Bereziuk’s lap. You know how it is with children. Everyone wants to play with them. Well, in the meantime, Osadchuk, Nestor, and Father Archipenko were talking so much, they got quite loud. “It was a plan to destroy us completely!” one of them said. “To weaken us forever!” the other yelled. Nestor told about the sausages that were made with human flesh and Osadchuk carried on about some family in his village that he saw eating corpses. You can imagine the rest.
It wasn’t but a moment later that we heard screaming from the baby. I don’t know exactly how it happened. I guess Bereziuk or someone else must have plopped him into Xenia’s arms. He probably started to squirm around so much that when she couldn’t control him, he fell backwards and knocked his head against the table. It wasn’t anything serious, but it was a good knock. Myroslava, of course, was very worried. Nadia was in tears. Everyone flocked around the baby trying to quieten him, but he just cried louder. I could tell Xenia felt sorry about dropping the baby, she got so red, but we weren’t expecting what happened next. Before we knew it she turned her attention to Osadchuk, Nestor, and Father Archipenko and started saying all kinds of things to them. That they were trying to ‘humiliate’ her and ‘judge’ her. But she wasn’t going to let them do it. Even Father Archipenko, who was trying so eagerly to find out where she lived so that he could ‘torment’ her, was not going to get the chance. And it was unpardonably nasty the way they gave her the baby to trick her into a ‘confession,’ to make her feel ‘guilty’ for Marta’s death. “Maybe you’d all like to see me in jail?” she screamed. “Go ahead! Think I’m a monster. Everyone thinks that anyway. I’m not afraid of any of you.” She got up as if to leave, but then she turned around and burst into tears. “All I wanted was to live. Like anyone else. Do you understand? You don’t think I suffered watching poor Marta’s babies? Day and night I prayed for them. Day and night!”
God only knows what possessed her. At first I thought someone had insulted her for not looking after Marta when she was sick. But when Father Archipenko tried to put his arm around her she just pushed him away, then paced around biting her lips and clasping her hands. “You think that because my older sister, Oleska was hiding a cow in the house while she could that made it easier? It didn’t. She had her own brood to look after. I had my share of weeds and dead rats too, don’t worry!” She cried so badly it was terrible to watch. Then out of all that, some sort of anger or shame took hold of her. She swore at us, yelling all the while that she did nothing to anyone. And then she pushed back the large bowl with the cabbage rolls in it, and it turned right over spilling them out, while she was crying and screaming about the ‘taste of blood.’ There was nothing we could do. With every word she became worse. “I was hungry!” she yelled. “All my life I was hungry! A dead chicken. A dead baby. What’s the difference? Corpses. I say corpses. All of them!” She looked so broken. She finally just hobbled out of the house sobbing.
Well, we haven’t heard from her since. Zhelisko thinks she sweeps up in a factory somewhere on St. Lawrence Boulevard. Probably sleeps under a staircase. Poor soul, she should come and live in the neighbourhood. We don’t mind. God knows, who didn’t live through hard times? Anyhow, I helped Shura board up Marta’s house, because you can’t just leave it that way. You never know when to expect the devil, I always say. And robbers don’t sleep.