Thursday, 20 February

A tiny doll between the window panes

The school used to stand between the street, the cemetery, and the pine forest. It stood there, hemmed in by hard maple trees and acacias. It scratched your legs with wolfberry bush, smelled of honeysuckle, and flickered with fireflies at night. Although the windows of the neighbouring houses gaped empty, people were still tending their vegetable patches here and there, the hives were packed with buzzing bees, and the prints of cow hooves and bicycle tires were visible on the country road.

The school—its eyes squinty, not yet closed—was half breathing, half sleeping. Did it remember its hungry, but cheerful students of the post-war days? Did it expect old village musicians to throw a concert inside? One never knows. It probably forgot its role already—is it a school, a village club, or a library? No one opened a rusted padlock on its door with peeled-off paint any longer. Leaves fell on its panelled windows that attracted dragonflies and strange bugs.

When Stalin died, the teachers lined up the students in the schoolyard: boys, their heads shaved bald, in their shabby, dyed sweaters and oversized boots, and girls in white headscarves and washed outskirts. Back in the day, food interested children way more than learning. There weren’t enough books. Pens with metal tips scratched the paper. Winter days were over in an instant, never really starting. Children went cold and hungry. It was like this on that March morning, too. The teachers wept, not even trying to hold their tears back, wiping their frost-bitten noses with neat handkerchiefs.

– The leader of the peoples, our beloved Stalin passed away today.

A young teacher choked with tears. The children also burst out crying, seeing for the first time such intelligent adults in tears. They wept altogether. One boy, Stepan, wailed in such a deep voice that it sounded funny, and my grandpa—one of those students back then—barely kept from laughing. But he took a hold on himself, though. Otherwise… The school, young and beautiful at that time, was throwing a stern light of its lamp into the winter morning. It was built only recently—spacious, with high ceilings and huge windows. It stood between the cemetery, the forest, and the street, proud of its enlightening mission. Neatly whitewashed, its doors and window frames painted blue, it didn’t know anything more important than itself. The school looked around freely, not yet hemmed in by shrubs, not yet forgotten or forsaken; it stared at the children passing by, as if saying, come on, kiddo, isn’t it time you came to me, to the blackboard, to the teacher’s pointer, to the knowledge?

My little mom—three streets away—must have heard that stern call about the knowledge and the light that would cut through the darkness, too, because she put the notebooks she found into a canvas bag, threw her father’s pen, a ballpoint this time, inside, and rushed toward the school. She was sitting among the first-graders, no longer hungry and more or less tidy and well-dressed, and scribbled something in her notebook—like an adult, like other children in class! Valentyna Huriyivna—the teacher, who was also my mom’s godmother—was walking around the classroom, checking the students’ notebooks. The soft autumn light was hiding in the corner by the window, filtered through the leaves and carried along by the last September wasps. Children were playing noisily outside. But my mom didn’t want to join them. She preferred a blank page in front of her; she was thinking about what she’d put down there once she learned to write.

– That’s where you are! You sit here, scrawling when we’re looking for you all around the village! Go home, you little bastard, or you’ll regret it!” a whip was trembling in grandma’s hands.

The school held its breath, freezing for a moment, but the teacher stood up for my little mom, saying to my grandma:

– Go home, Olia. I’ll bring her back in the afternoon.”

Valentyna Huriyivna had an unquestioned authority. Tall, dignified, with a deep, radiant gaze, she—just like the school—was confident in her noble mission. That calling, that mission of hers always pushed her to do good deeds. In spring, when our brook overflew its banks and flooded the entire meadow, merging with the rapid Psel river and forming four kilometers of sheer water, Valentyna Huriyivna got into a boat and tugged at the oars. Nothing could cut her off from her field of the reasonable, the good, the eternal. The school and the entire village watched one and the same scene every day: a spring breeze cutting the waves, the trees standing in water, and the teacher skillfully steering her boat between them—for four kilometers!

– Every single day, I swear to God! Day by day! She’d just hop into the boat and row! She took the bull by the horns! She was no slouch! You won’t find people like her anymore,” my grandpa raved about her.

My uncle, four years younger than my mom, was probably one of the last students in that school. Back then, it became popular to move to a big city after the graduation. School-leavers would pack their shabby canvas bags and set off to conquer Kyiv or Poltava, or at least one of the smaller towns—they were eager to go to any lengths but do the donkey work in their native village. The school noticed, of course, that there were fewer and fewer children every year, that children’s laughter was no longer echoing loudly against its walls nor their stamping against its floor. And then a first-grader tried to throw her doll to her friend through the window, but that doll just fell down in between the window panes. The school was angry at first, turning red with late afternoon sun, but then it got used to the doll lying there. Later, the school recognized that girl—no longer a girl, though, but a young woman pushing a stroller with her baby and talking to her husband.

– Well, another week—and we’re out of here. I’m sick and tired of these spades and rakes,” the woman said in broken Ukrainian. She didn’t recognize the doll. She never even looked that way.

I remember the school building functioning as a village club. Over the years, it became overgrown with shrubs and secrets. Swallows built their nests under the eaves. Bricks on the steps got chipped. Plaster peeled off and fell into the thick grass. The front door was rarely open—only when a local amateur band run by my grandpa played a concert.

– A Ukrainian folk song “At the End of the Dam, You Can Hear the Willows Humming” performed by a trio. Please wait a minute until they get changed.”

The school probably liked not so much that singing to the accompaniment of an accordion, as the chest voice of Valentyna Huriyivna. It was still waiting for the children to return, but they never did. Finally, it forgot everything. All of it. During the concerts, I would often tiptoe to the door leading to the closed part of the building, press my ear to it and listen. Sometimes, it was completely silent on that side, but sometimes the floor creaked a little—goodness knows who walked there. Perhaps it was that girl trying to pull her doll out. Perhaps a little Mykola or Ivanko, his head shaved bald, left his ink-pot there and returned now to take it back—just like that, through the darkness, through the cobweb of years, through the twilight of his or someone else’s memory. Or maybe that was the very first school teacher—Serafyma Vasylivna, young as a gazelle—roaming about. She walked from her table with notebooks to the blackboard, scolding the students for blots and mistakes. She was thoughtful, focused, persistent. The day when Stalin had died was the only one when she’d let her guard down. People forgot her and her tears already. Soon, they would also forget those newly-minted musicians performing “Do Not Rustle, Oh Meadow” behind the wall. The accordion, the tambourine—all of it would fall into oblivion.

In a few years, all the things—the chairs, the old-fashioned bulky cabinets, the dusty books, and the record player with the records—were hauled away from the school building. They loaded it all into a truck, put a padlock on the door and, having a smoke, drove away, taking the key along with them. Quick-witted villagers started to take the school down right away, one brick, one plank at a time. They must have built dozens of outhouses, pigsties, and garages. Clearly, they didn’t get their fingers burned by those bricks. No voices shouted “Stop!” in their heads.

Only the door is left. A tall door painted blue. It’s so tall that it won’t fit anywhere. Sometimes, I sit down on that smashed door and stay like that for a long time. The street, almost dead, is behind me. The hives, abandoned after grandma Halka and grandpa Pylyp passed away, are in front of me. The cemetery to the left leads to a place where students reunite with their teachers, musicians with their audience, memories with memories. Only the doll stuck between the window panes all those years ago, untouched, almost intact, is missing. Where is it?

Serhiy Osoka

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