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Old Lykora, a short story by Yevhen Hutsalo
Yevhen Hutsalo, a prominent Ukrainian writer, was born in the village of Sary Zhyvotiv in the Land of Vinnychchyna in 1937, and died in 1995. Yevehen Hutsalo is the author of many novels, short stories and essays which, if collected, would fill at least twenty volumes. He is known for poignant realism and psychological insights and ranks among the leading Ukrainian writers of the second half of the twentieth century.
Old Lykora began paying visits to her relatives and neighbors, announcing she would go to visit her son. She started on her visits several days before the day she fixed for her trip. Thin and bent, with the perpetual discontent glued to the corners of her lips and lurking in the faded blue — which used to be shining, devilishly blue — of her eyes, Old Lykora, when she talked to people on her visits, seemed to soften up and become kinder as though lit from inside by a hidden emotion. Her sinewy legs moved faster, her slow and shuffling gait acquired more briskness and cheerfulness; the discontent on her face gave way to excitement which made the old woman look livelier and younger. Even her shivering and shaking stopped — except for the days of preparation for her visit to her son, her age and her illnesses made her perpetually shiver and shake; her body shook uncontrollably, her small withered breasts, her arms, her hands, her head on a scrawny neck all shook; the head shook particularly badly. But as she announced her intention to visit her son, health seemed to oust the age and illnesses — Old Lykora was transformed into a person very different from the old hag everybody in the village knew so well.
The new Old Lykora would go to somebody’s place, she would sit down on whatever she would be invited to sit, she would take a good look around, and then she would talk about all sorts of things, once in a while relapsing into silence; the intervals of silence were as important as the stretches of talk; after she had said enough and kept silent enough, she would come to the central subject of her visit,
“I’m going to visit my son.” Saying this, she would watch out for the hosts’ reaction to her words. Though she had said it many times before, every time she repeated it, she grew aglow with solemnity as though it were the first time that she broke the news. Then she would go into details of what made her decide to visit her son now. She would begin with Horpyna’s chicken wandering into her garden and wreaking havoc on her patch of poppies; she would tell how she bandied words with Horpyna, how they would have rhubarb over the chicken and the poppies, and how she would not be able to get a wink of sleep after that. Then she would add that at dawn she did fall asleep and had a dream in which she saw her son — still a little boy; he has gotten entangled in the stems and leaves of pumpkins, and there is a big bumble bee circling over him, and the boy is crying for help, flailing his arms and kicking his feet. Didn’t that dream mean that something had happened, God forbid, that he needed help? So she must pay him a visit, mustn’t she?
If Old Lykora happened to come to her relatives or neighbors at the time they were having breakfast or lunch or dinner, she would be invited to share the meal with the hosts. At the table, Old Lykora would combine eating with talking — she would tell the hosts that the last time she visited her son was in winter — she would describe how on her way she had almost got frozen to death in that ravine and how it was snowing so hard she almost lost her way! But now it’s summer, she would add, she’d leave at dawn and then “get to my destination before dark”; if she gets tired, she’ll stop and rest; if it gets to be too hot, she would spend some time in the shade of a tree, and if she gets thirsty, she’ll ask for water from good people.
The hosts would tell her that she should be careful — it’s a long way to go.
Indeed it is, she would agree, it’s a long way to go, her feet will be sore, but she’s still got enough strength and vigor in her to make it. Last Epiphany she was so badly ill she could hardly get up from bed, lying down for days; her whole body ached, she felt sick, but now she is quite all right — she worked in the garden, digging and sawing and weeding. And now she is bleaching the cloth, and goes to the forest to collect faggots…
At the end of the meal, she would thank the hosts for the hospitality and for the food and leave. But if she met somebody on her way, or saw someone digging in the garden, or getting water at the well, or crossing the stream over the small bridge, she would stop and tell her story anew, with an ever increasing enthusiasm and new light in her eyes. But she would never come straight away to telling the people the most important thing — she would begin from afar; she would mention first those she had met or talked to before, and what they had told her, she would talk about Kovalykha’s daughter who was so sick that she started coughing up blood; about Ilko, the silly boy, who was chasing Matroshyna’s girl, just playing the fool, and the girl stepped on a piece of broken glass and cut her heel badly; now the heel is swollen and maybe she’d need to go to hospital; Ilko is an idler and a rogue and Matroshyna’s girl is a nice person, good looking though she’s lame and now she has that trouble with her leg…
Then she would come over to Horpyna’s chicken and would describe the incident in a manner that suggested that the chicken could have been sent to her, that is Lykora’s garden, on purpose to do some damage to her poppies. What business does that chicken have in her garden? Why can’t it stay in Horpyna’s garden? Why does it have to prowl around?
As Lykora warmed up to her story, her indignation grew, but it did not kill the light in her face. There was a shadow cast on that light though, but it would go the moment she would get to her story about the dream in which her son got entangled in the stems and leaves of the pumpkins in her garden, and about the bumble bee circling and buzzing over him in a menacing manner, poised to sting.
“So you see, I’ve got to go and see if everything’s all right,” she would conclude.
On the first day of preparations, she would visit and talk to quite a few of people; by the end of the day her feet were heavy and there was loud ringing in her head. But the old woman felt elated — so many people had heard her out, so many heard about her getting ready to visit her son. The noise in her head subsided at night but did not die. She listened to it in her sleep, and when she woke up in the morning it was still there, some kind of happy noise. Was it the echo of the noises of the village? Were the trees sending her their signals? Were the people talking about her intention to go visit her son? Was it the hearsay of her forthcoming visit to her son spreading around on the grapevine? Were the bushes at the end of her garden whispering about it?
She got up thinking about her son. She did everything slowly, not to scare her thoughts away. She went to the nearest well, as slow as she could in the hope of meeting people. At the well, she took her time slowly unwinding the rope attached to the bucket, slowly lowering it into the well, slowly pulling the full bucket out. All the time she kept looking around, in the hope of seeing someone in the street or in the yards of the nearby houses to tell her story to. When she carried the water back to her house, she greeted politely everyone she met, including the children. Even her swaying bucket seemed to be saying cheerful hello.
The old woman was glad that the day had only just begun and that there was enough time before evening to meet many more people, to tell them about what made her heart beat faster, and about the inner light that made her glow. She was not put off by the fact that the people she talked to did not ask for any details about her son, that they just listened, avoiding to look her in the eye; some obviously wanted to say something, even opened their mouths — but then remained silent, just nodding their heads. The old woman was so much submerged in her own feelings that she paid little attention to people’s reaction to what she actually said.
At night, she had a dream. She is walking along a wide road. The dry road is dappled with sunlight, but she walks on, paying no attention to what is under her feet. On both sides of the road the harvesting is in full swing; wagons loaded with sheaves roll by, and the sunrays fall in sheaves on her headscarf, and the air is full of the fragrances of the fields. But then the road transforms itself into a river, and the sun above descends into the river and is transformed into a boat. She steps into that boat and the boat starts gliding over the waters, and it is getting to be hotter and hotter and when the heat becomes unbearable — the old woman wakes up.
Her heart was racing, she was shivering and she felt as though her insides had been burned out. She passed her hands over her body as though checking whether everything was in its place; she listened to her blood pulsing loudly in her head. Did that dream mean that she’d never reach her son?
She began preparations the next morning. She caught a couple of her half-wild chickens and cooked them, baking them in the oven. She made soft, cottage cheese and stuffed pies with it. She fetched a large demijohn, all in cobwebs and dust, from the pantry. The demijohn contained home-made cherry vodka. The old woman filled a green glass bottle with that cherry vodka and stopped the bottle with a cork. Then she brought a couple of handfuls of walnuts from the garret, and carefully wiped them with a wet cloth. She went to her vegetable garden where she picked young cucumbers, and shook apples from the tree. The apples fell to the sleeping ground with soft plops. All of these things she packed into a basket and into an old patched sack which she had washed in the pond. She reserved the bag for the chickens.
When everything was packed and ready, the old woman grew restless. She moved from place to place — from the hen-coop to the pantry, from the pantry to the vegetable garden, forgetting what she had intended to do there, trying to remember whether she had packed everything she wanted to pack. Then she took another tour of the village informing everyone, “I’m leaving tomorrow.”
She seemed pale and absorbed in her thoughts, never noticing surprise or questions in the people’s inflamed eyes.
“Yes, I’m leaving tomorrow,” she kept saying. “I’m taking some food for him. The food which is cooked by a mother always tastes better than any other food, doesn’t it? I’ve baked some chickens, and I’ve packed some nuts. The nuts we picked with Kovalykha last year have come in handy. This year the yield of nuts was poor. In former times, nuts were not scarce, there was a lot of them, big ones, with nice cores. And they tasted very good if you fried them a little.”
From the nuts, the old woman moved on to acorns which she used to collect in the forest. She said that she had planted a lot of acorns close to her vegetable garden, “not far from raspberry bushes” and some had actually grown into trees, and they “grow so powerfully and fast that on a quiet day you can hear them grow.” The people she was telling all this to listened patiently and would tell the old woman of the trees they had planted themselves — “every time a child is born, a tree should be planted.”
At dawn the next morning, which came around early in summer, the old woman set out on her way. The willows along the road she took had seen their dreams and already washed themselves with dew, spreading the cool, humid air around them. The sky in the east flamed, the chimneys began to smoke, and the women, carrying buckets, appeared on their way to the wells.
The morning, ignited by the rising sun, was inundated with pinkish, bashful light, and a similar light glowed inside Old Lykora. She carried the basket tied to the sack over her shoulder; her head was covered with a scarf reserved for festive occasions. She herself looked festive and solemn as though she had set out on a pilgrimage. As she walked on and met some people, she just greeted them, without stopping and telling them her story. She did not have to tell people where she was going — they knew it, because she had set out on these trips many times before, both in winter and in summer. Two times a year she became filled with the pure inner light.
Some people stopped and followed her with their eyes, empathy written on their faces. People knew the old woman would walk across the village, then along the road through the fields, and she would keep walking until she got tired. Then she would rest in the shade, asking for water if anyone was around. The noisy harvesting would spread all around her, loaded wagons would move hither and thither, the harvesters would call to each other once in a while, and from a distance these calls would sound like birds chirping.
The old woman then would go on walking, and the dusty road would turn into a river, and the sun would turn into a flaming boat, and she would sail in that boat though she would feel very, very hot…
Old Lykora was on her way to her son who had been killed in the war.