A candle in a window

My big family wasn’t really well-off by the standards that prevailed back then. They had a small patch of land and a dozen of sons, daughters-in-law, and grandchildren. No one worked at the farm, though; no one toiled away for the sake of the rich people; no one died in a ditch. My family made their living tending their land and their cattle.

My great-grandma Yavdoshka recalled that when she had been a child, they’d even owned a pair of oxen and a small bee yard with two or three beehives. They also had a good set of tools. My great-grandpa Okhtanasiy ran the household. He did that with great shrewdness. Every morning, he’d put on his boots made of Russia leather – the left boot on his right foot, the right one on his left – and trudge through the village. There were quite a few houses where his sons with his daughters-in-law or his daughters with his sons-in-law lived. Okhtanasiy would visit every household, look around, checking if everything was in order, and continue on his way to the next house, without even saying hello or goodbye. Whenever he came upon a mess – the straw not stacked, potato not harvested, pumpkins not stored away – he’d make a big deal out of it. Under his command, everything would be stacked, harvested, and stored away in no time. Okhtanasiy would then go home, lay down by the stove, and wait until next morning, not really listening to women talking or his grandchildren chirping. He was a serious man. Who cared that he put his boots on wrong feet. His family treated him seriously, too. There was no place for sentiments. It was only at the ripe old age that Okhtanasiy would go on the porch and let out a heavy sigh, his hand cupped around his ear, “Can’t hear them singing any longer, those boys and girls.” It was the beginning of the 1930s.

Okhtanasiy didn’t live to see the famine of 1933. My great-grandma, his youngest daughter, did. She turned twenty-three that year. I expected she’d have clear memory of that time and would tell me the whole story. Curiously enough, she didn’t.

The first time I heard about the Holodomor was in school – Ukraine had gained independence by that time. I tried to ask my great-grandma all about it, eager to hear a firsthand story. But whenever I came up to her when someone else was around, her face would sag into a helpless expression; she’d shrug her shoulders, groaning and sighing, and mumble something about poor harvest – diffidently, hiding her eyes. But if we were alone, she’d lean in close to my ear and whisper, her words burning me like fire:

“It was before the break of dawn. We were still in bed. Two men in caps came into our yard. They went straight to the shed and took our cow. They took our cow away, Seriozhka.”

At that point, her voice would break, she’d have trouble breathing, deadly flutes whispering in her chest.

“Enough, grandma. Stop it. It makes you sick! Stop it!” I’d shout, waving my hands, scared that she’d drop dead in the middle of her recollections.

Catching her breath, my dear great-grandma would go on, keeping a watchful eye on the door:

“Earlier, they snatched up our crops. All of it. People thought they’d be able to hide it. But no – they found it and took it all away!”

From her sketchy recollections, I learned that in their village no one had starved to death. Many people in the neighboring villages had died, though, since not only their crops, but also their potato, beans, beetroots, and other vegetables had been seized. I couldn’t wrap my head around it – why they had taken everything away in one village, sparing the other, but much later I realized that it depended not so much on people at the top, but on the local comrades. There weren’t many poor people, former field hands, in our village. According to my great-grandma, prosperous farm owners didn’t live there, either. So, it wasn’t a good enough arena to stage a bloodbath of class warfare, like they did elsewhere.

“Things that happened in other places…Oh God,” great-grandma would continue, wrapped in her memories. “One woman came to our village in spring, her belly swollen. She said they’d come to her family and not just seized their food, but even snatched a sheet from a baby crib. The baby rolled over and started crying. Its mother screamed and tried to take the baby away, but that beast grabbed it and smashed its head against the stove. Oh God. These things never happened in our village. I never heard about anything like that.”

She crossed her heart.

“So what did you do? Did you give her something to eat?” I asked cautiously, worried that she’d say they didn’t, because they didn’t have much themselves.

“There wasn’t much in early spring. We soaked oil cakes in water, grated them, and boiled them. Not a single bean was left. Nothing. We gave those oil cakes to her. She took a handful and went outside, where the horses…where that bridge stands now. She was stuffing herself with them until she…well, we found her there next day—a cake in hand, eyes wide open, dead cold. The doctor said she had twisted bowel. That woman was so hungry, she said, that she’d eaten too much. Things like that often happened at the time.”

“What about the fish? You said you went finishing on the forest lake. Why didn’t you eat it?” I asked her, my eyes bulging wide with fear.

“But I told you that was early spring. What kind of fish was there at that time? People from three villages went fishing there. They dragged the net across the lake, sifting out all the fish. Not even a tadpole was left…The spring was the worst. It was just terrible. Terrible.”

Great-grandma crossed herself quickly, looking up piously to the icon of the Mother of God decorated with embroidered towels.

To find out anything about repressions or collectivization from my grandpa –great-grandma’s son – was an ungrateful task. Born in 1938, he was taught at school to look at one thing, but see another. Schooling took such a heavy toll on him that even when Ukraine became independent he refused to believe in this fact for the better part of a decade. He was afraid to criticize the authorities, and whenever great-grandma plunged into her memories, he’d always shush her.

When I was in my second year of university, I had a phonetics workshop or something, and I decided to take up the subject of the Holodomor and ask old women in my village about it so as to record their memories. Nothing came of it, though. Old women of the same age as my dear great-grandma or younger would just fumble with their headscarves, mumbling about poor harvest and drought. Hiding their eyes and blushing, they would say they didn’t have much time to talk to me – they had to pull out weeds out of their vegetable patches, to feed their chickens, to milk their cows. I could do nothing but change the subject quickly and ask them about traditional village weddings or something like that, instead.

Just like my great-grandma, those old women preferred to keep silent about the famine. They carried those memories with them till the end of their lives, though. After lunch, they swept bread crumbs off the table into their hands and threw them into their mouths. I still see this movement clearly in my mind. And not just this…

Not long before great-grandma died, her mind started to come undone. Her son and daughter-in-law insisted that in her eighties, she should finally stop tending the vegetable patch. They didn’t let her mend sacks or peel beetroots either. So, her robust rural identity, her mindset built on the annual cycle of all kinds of household chores, her hands and her soul that knew no other sense of life other than this hard labor began to crumble, deteriorate, decay, and roll downhill.

I remember sitting on a chair and watching my great-grandma possessed by her ghastly visions. When they plagued her, she no longer recognized us. For hours, she was half-delirious, half-asleep. She shouted incoherent, desperate, terrible things about some carts loaded with people, about the Germans, about rocks in a river, about the dead with the living and the living with the dead, about frozen beehives and cows taken away by the men in caps. When she emerged from that delirium and started to talk clearly, recognizing me at last, she often asked me to feed a family of house spirits in the attic. “I brought them some broth last night,” she’d say, “but it was probably too little – they must have starved to death.” “Their kids are dead,” she’d add. Great-grandma would pat my hand, begging me to bring them “a pot of soup.” I obediently clattered pots and pans in the kitchen and went outside. Standing behind the door for a few minutes, I’d come back, and great-grandma would look at me calmly and whisper, “Good, good…Now they’re no longer hungry. I don’t want them to be hungry. Ever.”

Shortly before her death, she started to sneak food from the kitchen and hide it under her pillow. I still remember how terrible it looked: pieces of fried fish, chicken drumsticks taken out of borscht, bread crumbs – all of that under her pillow. Grandma Nina would shake it all off her bed, but she couldn’t shake off ugly stains that even the most powerful detergent couldn’t wash off. It was impossible to persuade great-grandma that there was enough food in the fridge and that no one was going to starve. She would nod her head, smiling. At night, though, when everyone would be asleep, she’d sneak into the kitchen again. She became delirious more and more often, seeing hungry house spirits and her cow taken away by evil strangers.

“Look! I think she’s…she’s gone,” grandpa woke me up on a summer day, at the break of dawn.

I touched her hand. Her body was still warm – she died a few minutes ago, probably. Grandpa crossed himself and went to look for bed sheets to cover all mirrors. I wanted to put a blanket over great-grandma, but then I noticed something. I took a closer look. In her tiny, petite hand, there was a spoonful of sugar.

On that day, when my dear great-grandma died, I started to believe that our past never vanishes. It pulls back for a short time only to return later. It peers over our shoulders when we take shower, have lunch, read the news, go shopping, take the garbage out, hug our loved ones or fight with them. When we fall asleep, it stands at the head of the bed and keeps its guard until the early hours. A bird that flew into a window – this is it, the past. A gust of wind that blows your hair on a quiet day – this is it. A cat or a dog that rushes over to you in the middle of a dark forest – this is it, too. There’s just no way we can hide from the past. Let’s pay our respect to it, instead, lighting a candle in a window.

Serhiy Osoka

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