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Tabula Rasa, a screenplay by Ivan Mykolaychuk
The people were rounded up at the crossroads where tall crosses stood, at the market places and at the taverns, and then they were herded and driven to the squares in front of the churches, to the church graveyards where their parents and ancestors were buried. Then, at those sacred places, they had to swear before God and the graves their allegiance to the oath that they were to take, repeating the words which were being read out to them by the priests; naymachy — the scouts and agents who were looking for potential emigrants — were there too.
In spite of the fact that there were very many priests involved in this action — to raise the solemnity of the moment and to strengthen the resolve — there was still not enough clergymen to listen to the confessions and give the blessing to each confessing individual separately as the Law of God required; that is why the whole families of emigrants, or even the whole villages of them were given the blessings after their confessions were heard.
And the suffering of each individual, their troubles and sins, their lapses and falls, as well as their merits and virtues were revealed or obscured in a collective confession of the nation.
Confessions of the tribe of the Boychuks;
Confessions of the tribe of the Bukovyntsi;
Confessions of the tribe of the Halychane;
Confessions of the tribe of the Hutsuly;
Confessions of the tribe of the Lemky;
Confessions of the tribe of the Podolyany;
Confessions of the tribe of the Pokutyany;
Confessions of the tribe of the Polyany;
Confessions of the tribe of the Zakarpattsi.
All of these people called themselves “Rusyny,” and their land was called “Rusynska.”
Only very few were lucky and privileged enough to make their confessions in a sacred and secret ceremony without anyone else’s “ears” listening or “eyes” looking on. Among them were: a priest who was told “Do not leave your flock without your support even though they are promised the earthly paradise…”; a duka — a landowner who owned Carpathian mountain valleys and a timber-rafting business in Mezhyrich, who was told: “In the earthly paradise land is an asset too ; a ragman and junk dealer, Leiba Haman, a Jew converted to Christianity, who was told: “Even in the earthly paradise there is a need for banks…”
Also among those who were confessed individually happened to be Kateryna Yasenchuk, already a mother in spite of her young years.
She stood in the center of the square with all her possessions tied into a bundle that she placed over her shoulders; she was holding the hand of a fidgety boy. She stood all alone, away from other people, as though nailed to the ground, deep in gloomy thoughts — or just lost and confused…
A naymach spotted her and her beauty or the burning look in her sad eyes made him walk over to her. He approached her at the moment when she was tying her little son to her luggage with a length of cord.
The naymach said smiling, “Are you afraid of losing him when you travel?”
Without looking up or without stopping the tying process, Kateryna said, “He’s terribly unruly…”
“Why don’t you go to confession?” the naymach asked in a businesslike manner, and then added, not without cunning, “Are you afraid to admit to your sins in public?”
Kateryna’s gaze wandered into the distance, somewhere beyond the horizon. After a short pause she said quietly,
“What’s there to be afraid of? Nobody here knows me. We’re from far away mountains. There are indeed so many strangers around, but it does not matter as long as the soul can reveal itself…”
She finished tying the boy to the luggage, straightened up, and went to the group of young women and widows who were briskly and efficiently confessing their sins. The naymach followed her.
“Would you like to confess to a priest separately, all on your own?”
Kateryna stopped dead in her tracks.
The naymach continued to tempt her, “The priest to hear your confession and give you absolution will be the youngest, the most handsome and the strongest…”
Kateryna interrupted him, “I’ve already got someone who is young, most handsome and strong!”
“And where is he, this strong man of yours?”
“He’s been drafted into the army to fight at war.”
“Is he the father of this urchin?”
“Yes, he is the father of my son.”
“But you are not married?”
“We were wed … under the birch tree!”
The naymach was evidently impressed by the frankness of this proud young woman from the mountains, and he changed tack and offered to take her to an old priest, “but he is a vicious old devil!”
“Thank you, sir. Take me to that priest.”
Kateryna followed the naymach, glancing back at her son every few steps she took; the boy was busy trying hard to untie the knots of the cord with which he was bound to the luggage.
… The emigrants kept praying as they traveled first to Lviv, then to Gdansk, and then from Gdansk to Hamburg, whence they sailed across the ocean, which spilled the emigrants, as though they were codfish, in various ports of the Americas.
… Kateryna Yasenchuk, one of hundreds, disembarked in the port of a big city. She retained dignity, all alone, only with her carefree, brown-eyed imp in tow.
The sea-sickness, bad water, the lack of food and the lack of sleep had made this crowd of emigrants look like a flock of birds that had flown over the ocean and then, seeing the land, collapsed on the ground in total exhaustion.
Can you hear, brother mine,
Can you see, dear friend,
Cranes are flying away!
They stretch in a grey streak
Across the sky,
And clang as they fly —
“In the strange land we’ll die!
Our wings will wear out
In the flight across the sea!”
…When the hiring agents from various states and provinces, from mines and companies appeared with job offers, the crowd of emigrants came back to life — the sick became well, the half-dead became fully alive. The crowd surged, the people rushed to the agents, they ran pell-mell hither and thither, but Kateryna maintained her dignity amid this whirl of frenzied agitation — she just observed this feverish bustle at the slave market. She pulled a length of frayed cord out of a bag, tied her son with it to the luggage, slowly, taking her time, and then walked to the vortex of the human mart.
The fair at which people sold themselves
How long she stayed at this fair, Kateryna could not say — an hour? Several hours? Twenty-four hours? A year? But when she returned to her luggage that sat all alone on the deserted quay, her son was not there! The cord was still tied to it — but no trace of the boy.
She, wild with fear, started running in all directions, wailing and calling out the name of her son,
“Yaroslavchyk! Yarosyk! Yasyk! Yaaaaaasyk!
She ran into a street, lined with high-rises. Her voice and her sobs echoed among the skyscrapers as though among the mountains.
She ran blindly through the streets; on seeing open doors, she dashed in, mumbling incoherently. People drew back taking her for a raving maniac. Some tried to talk to her, asking her questions in English, French, German, Italian — but she could not understand a word.
She did not speak any language other than her own melodious Carpathian dialect of the Ukrainian language.
When she saw two policeman walking towards her, she, her mind clouded with grief, jumped at one of them, grabbed him by the coat and started hysterically shouting something about her lost son. Then she let go of the policeman, and screaming the words of a prayer in a terrible voice, she sank to the ground, her body quivering with sobs.
The policemen picked her up, searched her and took her to a mental hospital.
She had to change into the hospital dress and then she was taken to a doctor. She was asked many questions in several languages, but all she could mumble in reply was, “Yasyk, my Yasyk, my son, I’m his mother, his mama, mama…” and she kept showing by gestures her son’s height and repeating over and over again. “I’m his mama, mama, mama…”
All the physician could write into the new patient’s record was, “a female of unknown nationality claims to be a mother; checked in on May 4 1915.”
And he added two more words — tabula rasa. And so Kateryna’s record remained tabula rasa.
For six years Kateryna Yasenchuk kept trying to make herself understood, but no doctor in the hospital nor those who were invited to help, managed to establish where she was from, or what her problem was. She hoped against hope, and waited for a miracle.
But then she stopped hoping and stopped talking too. And she was silent for the next 62 years that she was to spend in the psychiatric hospital, silent like a fish that was forced to live out of her natural element.
But she kept her memories of the short life that she had lived before she found herself in hospital confinement. She lived through her memories several times, recollecting all the tiniest details...
Flashbacks into the past:
…Her life in the family of the Hutsul cattle farmer; she was a proud and hard-working girl…
…her early childhood…
…her turbulent late teens, her early maturity…
…how her love came to her …
…how passionate and fulfilling and reciprocal her love of Yaroslav was…
…a witch advised Kateryna, then a fifteen-year girl, to keep a shoot of wild garlic behind her belt next to her skin — it was supposed to prevent her from having children that might result from her young love…
… a hilarious episode when the village elder, a widower who was four times older than she, asked her hand in marriage — his proposal was turned down…
… this elder took his revenge on Kateryna and Yaroslav by getting him drafted into the army just at the time when Kateryna’s waistline began to show that the wild garlic did not help…
…her shotgun marriage — without the blessing of her parents, without the church ceremony, even without musicians at the wedding party — there was no money to pay them. But at the same time it was the merriest wedding party in the living memory of those who attended it…
…this wedding party was a memorable event indeed — the young people of the village gathered at a herdsmen’ log cabin high up in the mountains; they were poor but full of pep; they brought with them whatever they could to eat and drink and make merry. All the ancient wedding rituals were observed, and in the absence of musicians, they made music themselves, using their lips and voices as instruments. It was a glorious and very exciting party! Everyone was deeply moved. Yaroslav played cymbals like a true virtuoso and entertained the guests by cracking jokes. Yes, that party will stay in memory for long…
There is nothing much to tell about Kateryna’s life in hospital — it was hardly more than biological existence… And yet…
She managed to get hold of paints and she painted a window on one of the walls of her windowless ward. In her young years, before the emigration, she had loved to paint and she had decorated the stove, the frames of the windows, the trunks, and the walls with ornaments and pictures; she had made designs for embroideries too. And in the hospital she revived her skill — her nicely painted window reminded her the one through which she had looked at the world outside in her childhood; the window near which, on the outside, she had had her first love trysts, and through which she peered into the house coming back early in the morning from her long passionate dates with her beloved.
It was a window into her past. Through it she could see whatever she wanted to see — but there were also things that she saw though she’d rather would not. She saw things that did happen and things that she only imagined had happened. She saw herself as a child and as a teenager. Once she even saw herself as an infant in the cradle. But she would never see herself in her old age — her window would show only what had happened with her before she had tuned eighteen and a half years old. And after that? After that she was just a patient of a psychiatric hospital who nobody paid any attention to. Her window also seemed not to have been noticed by anybody, and the patient’s chart at the head of her bed continued to say: tabula rasa.
But what her initial pleadings had failed to do, a song did. In 1983, the year that marked the sixty-eighth year of her confinement and the sixty-second year of her silence, Kateryna turned eighty six. One spring morning, a new nurse came into her ward. Kateryna would not react to her as she had not reacted to so many nurses and doctors she had seen in her decades of captivity, but this new nurse said something that caught Kateryna’s attention. There was something very familiar in her greeting, and something that caused pain as a greeting from the distant past might, something that stirred her soul. Kateryna sought refuge in her bed, and shaking, made scared animal sounds. But then she made herself get up and go to her painted window — she seemed to ask her window: did the words of the greeting come from you, my window? Did she just imagine hearing them?
The nurse put two pysanky (painted Easter eggs) on the small bedside table, and said, “Khrystos voskres!” — “Christ is risen!”
The Ukrainian words, the Hutsul-style pysanky — Kateryna had painted such eggs in her young years too! — made her want to reply but something constricted her throat, and she could not pronounce a word. She stepped back from the pysanky in panic.
The nurse did not see anything unusual in the behavior of the patient — it was a psychiatric hospital after all — and got down to tidying the room and washing the floor. Doing this she sang a children’s spring song she had learnt from her parents who had come from a distant land.
And then, at one moment she realized that her song was being echoed — the old, gray-haired woman who was sitting on her bed, was singing with the nurse in a duet! The nurse instinctively made for the door in a rush for safety, but a moment later she stopped and looked back at the patient — Kateryna was holding the two pysanky on her palms, her arms outstretched. It looked as though she was expecting them to fly away like doves.
Kateryna wept quietly like a person who was suddenly overwhelmed by happiness. The nurse who was very much confused, came up to Kateryna and sat by her side on the bed. Kateryna looked into the nurse’s eyes and then hugged her, and kissed her three times in the traditional Easter greeting!
…The bed linen is white
But the walls in my room are around me,
And I’m all alone in a foreign land…
After this day, things changed radically for Kateryna. Her story, interpreted from the Ukrainian, was listened to at last. Apologies were made, her patient’s record was filled out and she was released from hospital. Kateryna was placed at a hospice which was run by a religious organization of people of Ukrainian descent.
There, at the hospice, Kateryna learnt what had been happening in the world and in her native land during the decades that she had spent in the hospital, but this knowledge did not seem to affect her in any way — nothing seemed to surprise or shock her either. The only thing that did shock her was her reflection in a mirror that she saw for the first time in so many years. There were no mirrors in the psychiatric hospital, and even if there were, Kateryna would not wish to have a look at herself in a mirror. But in the hospice, her accidental discovery of her own likeness in a mirror made such an impression on her that she stayed glued to the mirror for hours, until the night came. She did it not so much to compare what she was seeing now with what she remembered she must have looked decades ago, but rather to study this new image of her likeness in order to get adjusted to it.
In 1983, her photograph was taken, her passport was made for her and delivered to her, some money and necessary documents were collected for her, and she was told she could go back to her native land — the flight would take only twelve hours and she would be able to return to the land of her childhood, of her youth, of her love…
It was this show of human compassion and goodwill which must have come as such a great shock to her that it brought her life to an abrupt end …
Kateryna ran out into the street and started running, as she had done decades ago, among the high-rises as though among the mountains. But this time her physical strength gave up very fast and she collapsed in exhaustion on the first bench she saw.
Two policemen spotted her and came up to her. They asked whether she needed help. She nodded her head affirmatively. The policeman helped her to her feet and took her to the place which she indicated by gestures — she showed the way to the psychiatric hospital by a feeble hand, but before they reached it, her knees started to buckle and she ran out of strength to breathe; her waving hand failed to deliver the air to her gaping mouth — the air she did not need any longer anyway.
Ivan Mykolaychuk was much more than an actor and film director — he was one of the few Ukrainians of his generation who epitomized the very essence of “Ukrainianness.”
He was born on June 15 1941, and died on August 3 1987.
Ivan Mykolaychuk was one of the leading exponents of what came to be known as “Ukrainian poetic cinema.” Popularity came to Mykolaychuk very early in his artistic career — the leading role he played in Serhiy Parajanov’s film Tini zabutykh predkiv (Shadows of the Forgotten Ancestors) in 1964, propelled him to the forefront of the Ukrainian cultural scene of that time.
During his life, Mykolaychuk played over 30 roles, wrote several screenplays and directed two films.
The soviet regime frowned upon Mykolaychuk’s open support for things Ukrainian in culture and in everyday life, and much was done to discourage him from film making. Harassment and constant pressure put on him by the soviet authorities eventually led to his illness and untimely death.
The extent of his contribution to the Ukrainian cinema, to Ukrainian culture in general and the Ukrainian spirit in particular, came to be appreciated only after Ukraine regained independence.
Tabula rasa is a screenplay, which was written in the 1980s, and which is based on facts; a French television director learnt about the tragic destiny of a Ukrainian emigre, Kateryna Yasenchuk, from a French press release. She found out more details about Yasenchuk’s life and decided to make a film about her. Through the French embassy she came into contact with Mykolaychuk and offered him to write a screenplay. Mykolaychuk gave his consent but the film was never made because of Mykolyachuk’s illness.[Prev][Contents][Next]