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Three Cuckoo Birds — dedicated to Love Supreme by Hryhir Tyutyunnyk
I stride past the community centre. I am wearing a brand-new but cheap suit (to earn enough money for it I worked nights unloading freight trains in a team with other students like myself). Also, I am carrying a battered suitcase. I walk around the corner and the first thing that comes into view is Karpo Yarkovy’s house with even rows of little, young pines in front of it. On the porch of Karpo’s house stands Marfa Yarkova who immediately spots me. As I keep walking, she follows me with her eyes. She is standing there without a scarf on her head, her lush hair grey. Her braids used to shine like gold but there is no lustre left in her hair. The hair, I think, seems to die earlier than the person whose head it covers…
I come closer and say, passing in front of the young pines,
“Good day to you, Aunt Marfa.”
Marfa’s lips move but no sounds reach me. I know her eyes are on me as I walk away into a pine grove. These pines are usually referred to as “the big ones,” or as “those that your father once planted.”
My mother is overjoyed to see me, she weeps with joy, offering her livid lips for the kiss.
I tell my mother whatever little there is to tell about my student’s life — “See, I’ve bought me a new suit!”— and then ask,
“Mother, why does Marfa Yarkova always look at me in such a strange way?”
Mother does not answer; then sighs after a long silence and says,
“She loved your father very much. And you look very much like him.”
Marfa (she was of a short stature and when she was young people called her The Little One) always felt when a letter from my father was still on its way. When her heart told her a letter had arrived, she would go to the post office, sit down on the porch, lissom and svelte, wearing an old but neat embroidered shirt and plated skirt, her feet bare. She would sit there, on the post office porch, her hair that showed from under the dark headscarf shining bright yellow. To start her vigil at the post office, she had to sneak away from her work at the threshing machine, or in the grain field where she followed a scytheman picking up what he mowed and tying it into sheaves, or at the meadows where she helped pile hay into ricks.
She sat there, stripping a daisy of its petals, and murmuring as each next petal was torn off, “Yes, there is a letter, no there is not, yes there is…”
When at last the postman, Levko, one-armed, very tall, lean to the point of gauntness, the strap of his tarpaulin mail bag over his shoulder that stuck at a jaunty angle upwards, walked out of the post office door, Marfa would spring up to her feet, rush to him and ask in a low voice, looking up from her low height into the man’s eyes,
“Uncle Levko, Uncle Levko, is there a letter from Myshko?”
“No, no letters from him,” the postman said, blinking and, to avoid Marfa’s eyes, looking into the distance above her head of golden hair that stuck out from under the black scarf.
“Uncle Levko, you must be lying, I know for sure there is.”
“No, no letters… well, there is. But it’s not for you, anyway, it’s for Sofiya.”
“Uncle Levko, Uncle Levko, please, may I just hold it in my hands?”
“No, you may not. Somebody else’s letters must not be given to anyone except the addressee. It’s just forbidden, you know.”
“I’m not going to read it, I’ll just hold it for a few moments and I’ll give it back to you.”
Tears begin to well up in Marfa’s blue eyes which are looking up beseechingly at Levko; the eyes, now sparkling with tears, seem to be even bluer than before.
Levko looks around, sees no one, sighs feebly, his weak chest rising and falling slightly, and beckons Marfa to follow him. They walk around the post office, and when they are behind it, he pulls out a letter out of his bag and offers it to Marfa.
“All right, here it is. But tell no one that I’ve let you hold it…or I’ll lose my job.”
“Oh, Uncle Levko, no, no, no, no, of course I won’t tell anyone!” In her earnestness Marfa speaks so fast the individual words become almost indistinguishable. She is overwhelmed with gratitude. “I swear by the Holly Cross!” And she makes a quick sign of the cross over her chest.
She snatches the letter from Levko’s hand, copious tears rolling down her cheeks, and presses the letter to her bosom; then she brings it to her lips and kisses the return address.
“Careful with your tears — don’t let them smudge the ink,” Levko mutters, turning away and waiting.
If there is still no one in sight, she holds on to the letter for some more time, keeping it pressed to her bosom, and whispering feverishly, “See, I’ve done no damage to it… Thank you so much, Uncle Levko, thank you. It’s so kind of you… Now, take this, please, and have a drink for his health, please.”
She pulls a crumpled one-rouble bill from the bosom of her shirt, and quickly shoves it into Levko’s hand.
“If it were not for drinking his health, I’d never take it…” Levko mumbles.
And he shuffles off in the direction of the village, his right shoulder with the strap of the almost empty bag over it, sticking angularly upwards.
Marfa takes off too, running back to her work, back to tying straw sheaves. She’s almost flying, light as a bird, and the wind keeps trying and failing to dry her tears.
“Mother, who told you about all this? Uncle Levko?”
“No, he wouldn’t dare. I saw a lot myself, and I heard a lot… See, I often followed her when she slipped away from work. I took a slightly different route, through the ravines, but when I got to the post office she’d already be there, sitting on the porch, waiting… She was the first one to guess that there was a message from your father.”
“Weren’t you mad with her?”
“How can you be angry with someone who is distressed and sorrowing? Woe does not invite anger, only pity.”
“But how come she could guess when the letter would be coming and you did not?”
“I don’t know, son, why it was like this. Each person’s heart feels differently. Her heart let her know, and mine was different… She was much younger than your father. He was thirty three and she was nineteen… A couple of years of life with her Karpo was like a hundred for her… And your father did not seem to get older at all. He was the same at twenty and at thirty. Was he stately! Sun-tanned, his black eyes like coals, burning into you. When he just glanced at you, you felt your heart miss a beat. Probably that is why he so rarely raised his eyes to look at people. More often he would put his hand over his brow thinking something over. The last time though when I saw his eyes — it was in the town of Romny where he was taken and where I followed him, and then… That last time his eyes did not burn into me, they were gentle, they only caressed. And they were very sad. He stared at me as though through a haze…
They, Karpo and Marfa that is, used to come to our place for visits. In fact, almost every night. The three of us — your father, Marfa and I chattered and gossiped and sang keeping our voices down a bit. Your father had a singing baritone, Marfa was in the lead, and I followed her in singing. Her voice was like she herself — tender and thin, it seemed it might snap like a twig at any moment — but she could sing oh so well! And that Karpo of hers was good for nothing. He’d just sit there, at the table, staring at the ceiling. Or he’d blow air through his moustache, to sort of fluff it up. First on one side, then on the other. But I tell you he was one for eating! I’d give him a big plateful of hot halushky*, thrust a table spoon into his hand, and tell him, Go ahead, help yourself! And while we sang, he’d dig in with great gusto. He bent his head low over the plate, catching the steam with his moustache as they say, and gobbled up what was in it so fast as though instead of the mouth he were throwing halushky over the shoulder. And he huffed and puffed so much that he’d almost blow out the flame of our little oil lamp that sat on the other end of the table. “Yeah,” he would repeat once in a while, “I love them halushky. Only you should put more potatoes into them.” And what a meaty face he had! His legs were like heavy stumps. And his hair was the colour of old straw. By his side, Marfa looked like a tender quail… She would glance at him, bent low over his halusky, slurping, sigh in the middle of a song and turn away, with tears in her eyes… Her eyes were like two blue candles… And they were all the time on your father. I saw that. And he would just go on singing, with his hand over his brow. Once in a while he would smile at you, lying in your cradle, and gently rock it.
Later, I’d tell him, “Mykhailo, why don’t you ever look at her, just give her a glance! Can’t you see the way she lights up in your presence?” And all he said was, “Why should I make things worse for her than they are? Isn’t she suffering enough?”
When she is telling me all this, my mother’s eyes are dry, her voice does not tremble, and I know that these recollections do not rend her heart, do not hurt any longer — they’ve become petrified.
My father’s last letter to my mother
“My dear Sofiya, my sweet Sonya,
Yesterday a friend of mine gave me a splinter of a looking-glass, and when I looked into it I could not recognize myself. Not only the hair on my head, but even my eyebrows have gone grey. I even thought it must be hoarfrost — I was out of doors at that moment — but I passed my palm over the hair and discovered it was not the hoarfrost after all.
I won’t look at myself in mirrors ever again.
I often dream at night of my carpentering. In my dreams I make window frames, fancy doors, tables, and benches. After I wake up, my hands are itching to do some work, so much so that I carve wooden spoons for the boys. But I seem to be all thumbs when I do it. The trees here provide very good timber — palaces could be built with it. But the timber’s not dry enough. Besides, here I don’t have carpenter instruments like the ones I have at home. Have you sold my instruments yet? If you find yourself in dire straits, don’t hesitate, sell them. When I return, we’ll earn for new instruments.
Sonya, if you only knew how I want to survive. But it’s such a long way home.
You ask me in your letter what they feed us with and what clothes we get for the winter. They give us such good slops that Karpo Yarkovy would put away a dozen platefuls at one sitting, and would ask for another helping! Togs that they give us are all right too, nothing the have-nots from the countryside like us would complain about.
The previous night in my dream I saw the pine I had planted. It must be waist high, or even taller now. And there, in the distance I saw a blue stretch of the river, like a bird’s wing. But neither you, nor my son, the apple of my eye, come to me in my night dreams. I see you in my visions when I am awake instead.
The man who sleeps next door to me in our dugout mumbles prayers in his sleep, but he never utters the name of God he is praying to.
Sonya, my dearest,
Do not judge me too harshly. I’ve never told anyone a lie, and I’ll tell the truth now too — everyday I feel Marfa’s soul wandering somewhere near me. She’s so heartsick. Sonya, do me a favour — go to her place and tell her I’ve sent her three cuckoo birds with three little songs and kind regards, songs like the ones the puny little bandura-player sang at the fairs, remember? But I am not sure though these three birds will be able to fly all the way from Siberia which is so vast, so impassable, so cold, and reach her. They may be nipped in flight by the fierce cold.
(“Siberia which is so vast…” is crossed out thickly in blue ink with an unsure hand, but above the crossed-out words, it is written anew, “Siberia which is so vast…”).
Please, go see her, my Sonya, my only one. Maybe she’ll call her soul to come back to her, and then I’ll have peace, at least for a little while.”
I embrace you, and I’ll carry my son in his cradle in my heart, as long as I live…”
It was a long time ago, but I keep wondering, Isn’t it amazing how close they, Marfa and my father, were to each other in feeling? How do things like this happen?
And also I can’t help thinking, Why didn’t they get married if there was such an invisible but such a strong bond between them?
And the answer comes in a whisper from the tall “Father’s pine,” rustling in the wind, “If they had married, there would be no you.”
* halushky — a sort of dumplings