translated from Ukrainian into English- Martha Kuchar
(fragment of movie-essay)
“Annie’s son Dmitry has again brought her bread and milk. They say he’s feeble-minded but he’s kind-hearted and loving like a child,” yelled Olena.
“When it comes to love, he takes after his unwed mother,” declared the neighbor across the street pottering about in her flowerbeds.
“It’s odd that love produced a feeble-minded child. How can that be?”
“It’s God’s will, everything is in His hands. Maybe her luck ran out. Who knows? It’s not for us to know God’s plan for others. We must tend our own gardens.”
“But oh, how she loved that boy – tiny, weak, witless. How can one so love a blank mind?”
“You’re the only one who cares about a clever head. She cared only for him, just the way he is.”
“He says he likes the French woman.”
“Well, let him say and do it. Take a foreigner as one of your own and you’ll be happy.”
“Eh, happiness is nowhere to be found. Damned drunkard squandered all our worth.”
“Oh, hold your tongue. You picked him yourself. You should have given him to Stephie.”
Dmitry pulled the wire ring over the gate post to latch the broken fence, sprinted to the porch on which three cats were sunning themselves, opened the unlocked door to the house and entered a room where a middle-aged woman lay, her big dark eyes staring up at the ceiling. He poured her some milk and gave her bread to eat. The woman lay there for a long time squeezing her eyes shut, and then some reflex made her spring up, eyelids fluttering; she licked her parched lips and stretched out her hand.
She met him on a street in Paris, a blonde young man with beautiful blue eyes and dark brows, and he instantly captivated her. Catching her eye he smiled at her and greeted her. His smile was even more wonderful than he, and she swooned and stopped as if rooted to the ground. Her legs gave way, and the young man caught her in his arms, preventing her from falling.
“Careful, miss.” He smiled, lips quivering.
“Vous vous moquez de moi,” she said, slightly offended.
“I’m laughing with you,” he said with an accent.
She was an elegant young French women, and he a handsome young man, clearly of a lower income, a Ukrainian and a medical student. He had an air of independence and pride.
Words aren’t always needed. They found each other, they connected, they bonded.
Françoise was intended for another man — a respectable, wealthy young financier from her father’s circle. They had met a few times, everything went smoothly, but they felt nothing for each other.
Back in his village, a girl was waiting for Yuri, too – Vasylyna, a cheerful young woman, all peaches and cream. She created song lyrics on the fly, they flowed from her. Best of all, she sang them, and when she smiled the hills rang out. More than once, they had kissed among the pine trees. They felt powerful physical urges, but he always restrained them from going all the way. Once he completed his studies and become a doctor, he reckoned, he would marry her.
But here in Paris…a new thirst seared. It caught Yuri and Françoise on their life’s paths, and from then on, they stayed together. And Paris itself abetted the feelings. This city with its insatiable beauty and romance smiled upon them and with them, and sealed their fate.
They walked all over the city, ambled along the Champs-Élysées, sat on the banks of the River Seine, lost their bearings in the Louvre, wrangled about the Moulin Rouge. Paris dwelled within them, as if they’d become part of her and lost themselves within her… The two of them grew closer together becoming as one; morning, noon, and night, they experienced irrepressible feelings.
“Si le paradis existe il est comme toi” she said.
“And like you.”
Thoughts about Françoise interfered with his studies, with going to lectures and focusing on assignments. Anatomical studies at that time were done with models, not cadavers, making the science seem less relevant and even a bit boring. Nevertheless he applied himself to its study, which brought him back to earth.
“You’re going to lose the bank because of him! Don’t forget you are a banker’s daughter,” grumbled her father.
“I just want to be your daughter. Allow me to be happy.”
The next time they met, Yuri was silent for a long time, knitting his brow. Finally he said:
“There are problems at home. My family isn’t wealthy, but they have a prosperous homestead. There’s been a fire; the stable and barn burnt down, and the injured animals were taken to slaughter. They’ll need money to rebuild and buy cattle. I’m going to go there. I won’t be able to complete my studies, and besides, I’m not the right man for you.”
She thought for a moment and then said resolutely said, “This is our problem together. We’ll find a solution, we’ll think of something”
“It’s not for you to fix my problems.”
“Today they’re mine to fix; next time they’ll be yours. That’s how life is. This is just one chapter. You need to finish your studies.”
Each defended his position, but after a while, they worked out a solution together.
“I’ve brought you nothing but troubles.”
“I’ll speak to my father.”
“That was money for my own expenses! You gave it to me for my needs. I didn’t steal anything!”
“Yes, but not for him. You didn’t tell me you were going to take the money, so it’s as if you stole it. There’s honor in every penny. I don’t want to see him here!” replied her father angrily.
“Then I will go to him.”
They took the least expensive apartment they could find. Their landlady, who crocheted very beautifully, said that a girl should always have a craft at which she could excel. One day Françoise watched the lady at work from afar; the next day she came closer; on the third day, she herself began to crochet. Her first effort was a modest, lacy, delicate doily made of thin yarn, to be placed beneath a vase. Later she crocheted a pair of child’s booties. She showed Yuri. He rubbed them between his fingers and then chuckled, “Save these for our first one.”
“I will,” she replied.
With him she now encountered a different world, a world of privation, but she did not complain.
“I’ll finish my studies and then we’ll go the Ukraine — for my parents’ blessing,” said Yuri.
“En visite,” she quickly added.
The house next door to theirs always smelled of onion soup and walking past the poor family living there, Françoise wondered how people lived like this, this mother and her daughter. No doubt, they too smelled of soup.
One day as she was walking by she noticed that the scent of onion soup was missing. This surprised her. The front door was open; she walked into the house just to say hello. She caught the scent of burning wax. The woman living there approached her and nodded toward the adjoining room. On heavy legs, swollen either from age or from her tears, she shuffled into the room with Françoise following her. Françoise stiffened at the sight of the woman’s lifeless child lying on the table, in an oversized white dress that covered her to her feet. She was barefoot. A moment later, Françoise tore away from the darkness of the place and returned to her own home. She grabbed the crocheted child booties and gave them to her neighbor.
The mother was overjoyed and put the booties on the feet of her dead child. Averting her eyes, she said, “Pas aux pieds nus…”
This new world hinted to Françoise about significant things; it awakened feelings that were altogether new to her.
When you love someone, you feel things more strongly.
She could hardly remember the journey. She saw only Yuri; with him she felt at peace everywhere. It’s a familiar story. With the one you love, you can go even to the ends of the earth. But then she thought, why to “the ends”? She looked out the window. Looking back at her were different kinds of houses with a different kind of spirit. This was the place that bore him, and so she went there, with him and to him. It seemed to her that the little white houses were strung across the land as beads upon a necklace. It felt to her as if the homesteads were somehow deep in thought, as if somewhat offended, the interiors beyond their windows full of tears. Or were the tears in her? The landscape was completely alien to her. As they stepped out of the carriage, she felt dizzy; she became afraid. A foreign place – even though she was with him, heaven help her. For a split second she wanted to run away, go back, because she thought she may never see her Paris again, feel its spirit, sense its melody. In the homes of these strangers lurked secrets hidden from her. She couldn’t hold back and burst into tears like a baby. But the outburst was momentary and then it was gone. She got herself under control and even began to smile.
“You must be tired from your journey. Come in, my dear guests, master and mistress of our home,” said the mother guiding them into the house.
Sobbing she grabbed her son and hugged him. Then glancing at Françoise, she said: “Eyes only on her. Dressed like a little doll.” And she embraced her cautiously.
“Mother, I’m a doctor now.” He showed her the documents. Everyone was happy because they knew that each of them had a stake in his achievement.
Françoise was restless. She wanted to go somewhere, walk around with Yuri, but the village had only one main street. Everything else was small lanes or farms with a few houses scattered over the hills.
“Let’s go for a walk,” she said.
She changed her clothes, looking more elegant than ever. She tucked her purse under her arm, and they went for a stroll around the village. Little children ran from house to house announcing to everyone that Yuri had arrived with his French woman and that the two of them were to be married here in the village.
The weather was good. The sun was shining. The playful squeals of children could be heard all around – “the radio of the village.” Everyone they met was cheerful — greeting them warmly and earnestly, and looking them over with approval. It seemed to Françoise that she’d entered some fairy tale that had no castle but only these good people who wished them well. Could these villagers really be so happy for them? In Paris everyone went his own way, minding his own affairs.
Then the children fell silent in their yards and the neighbors grew quiet behind their gates. Pretty Vasylyna stepped into the road. Smiling she began singing a song.
What a fine lover I have; he’s returned to me at last
But he didn’t stop at my door, nor bow to me at my gate.
She has clothes beyond compare. Look at how he peers,
As if forgetting or confused. Betrayal prepares.
In spite of herself, a big tear rolled down Vasylyna’s cheek. With a proud, confident laugh she called out, “So, my friend Yuri, you wretch!”
Françoise understood at once and extended her hand to Vasylyna. “Quand je suis tombee amoureuse de lui – tu tais loin de son cur. Je ne t’ai pas vue.”
Yuri did not translate these words, but said only, “Forgive me.”
And once again, “Forgive me.”
Vasylyna put her hands on her hips and sang:
What will be and won’t be – it’s not ours to see.
For some, happiness will reign, for some destruction.
Interrupting her song, Gregory came running from the village edge and shouted fervently: “Vasylyna, I’m sending the matchmakers to you on Sunday!”
“Send them,” she replied.
Sometimes you do not need to know the words to understand the meaning, to sense when one person’s happiness is another person’s pain. Françoise stood tall, looked over at Vasylyna’s house, and saw that its windows were filled with tears. Or was this just a different kind of glass?
Devastation all around. It began here even before the Great Fatherland War. Hard times. It tore everything to shreds. It turned everything inside out. On the fences: sackcloth, bedspreads, pillows, and flags.
Françoise dreamed of having her parents come to the wedding, but the iron curtain between the borders lay between them. Françoise had to make a choice: return to her country or stay behind in Ukraine with Yuri.
She could not live without her beloved. Her eyes rested easy when she saw him – her eyes but not her heart; her heart was uneasy.
There was much that this girl did not understand here, especially in these difficult times.
“We’ll get our marriage license tomorrow. Not in the spring. Who knows what autumn with bring, whose land this will be. Tomorrow, do you hear me? Then at night we’ll ask Father Michael to marry us. We have to make sure your papers show that you belong here, not as a foreigner but as lady of the house. These are troubled times.”
She didn’t object. Before her lay impenetrable darkness, and she peered into the face of it. Yuri, and only Yuri, was her hold on life, her anchor in the wide world and in the land of his forefathers.
So that’s what they did. They registered their marriage at the civil court. These marriage registries had begun under the Soviets. That night they’d get married in church. Yuri’s sister Myrosya was to be her bridesmaid and Yuri’s childhood friend Peter was the groomsmen. Yuri’s mother prepared a great serving of varenyky, a wedding delicacy. Mother prepared the meal, hosted everyone, and joined in the celebrations.
“Be happy, my children. If you’re hot-headed, it’s hard to be happy even in the best of times. I wish only happiness for you in your future. If your love for each other is strong and powerful, nothing else will matter. Accept God’s blessings and love Him. May the love of God and my maternal blessing stamp your future.”
The newlyweds sat quietly and were happy in their hearts. His hand gently clasped hers. They smiled at one another. All their troubles seemed to have disappeared.
“We’ll have to introduce the new bride to the work we do around here.”
“Mother, leave it alone. She will do what she can.”
“She knows how to make soup and knit, and the rest she will learn as she goes along.”
“Very well, I will.” Françoise didn’t understand all the words but she sensed in them first her mother-in-law’s disapproval and then some acceptance.
Years passed. Difficult years. Françoise, as they said, “walked barren.” Vasylyna was also unable to mother a child: she had already buried more than one. Such was the fate of these two women.
Yuri was always in demand. At times he’d furrow his brow, but he went off to work anyway. Because he had to.
Françoise waited for him at home. She longed for him, always wanting him close to her.
“I love your touch. Your touch is my protection and my comfort. Only you, my beloved, only with you do I have all that I would never have otherwise.”
“If only the war doesn’t rob us of this touching,” Yuri said, sagging and resigned.
“I am strong and whole when you are with me. In my thoughts, my love, my body. Your touch fulfills me and repels loneliness. I am yours forever.”
“This war is just the beginning, my dear. I am afraid for you.”
“I am happy in your embrace. At such moments, it’s as if the world is rocking me in its cradle. I can’t imagine that there is anyone happier than we are. It’s odd.”
“Love lasts for a long, long time. It’s either there or it isn’t.”
“I’ve been thinking that maybe I need to feel a little less love. It’s keeping me from sleeping,” she laughs, embracing and kissing him.
“You are needed here. They can’t possibly take you.”
“I don’t know, my love, I don’t know.”
“Then I will go to the front with you, I will go into the forest with you or to jail, I don’t care. Even the snows couldn’t smother my love for you, couldn’t blind me to the sight of your sweet blue eyes and flaxen hair. Yes, my love, your eyes grow bluer still when you look at me.”
“Love makes you beautiful and true.”
The daughter of wealthy parents who never bothered about household chores, Françoise simply didn’t cook as well as she should, and she grumbled about the amount of cooking and work there was to do, especially not knowing what tomorrow might bring. Many things made little sense these days. A lump rose in her throat and its pain spread to her temples; sometimes her legs would give way beneath her.
“Such are the times,” said Yuri’s mother.
“Such are the times,” said Françoise and felt it in the knot in her throat.
Myroslava was arrested before sunset. A teacher, she had a boyfriend who served in the resistance. She and Françoise were closest friends. They began their friendship as soon as they found words to speak.
An elementary school teacher and a blonde beauty like her brother Yuri, Myrosya loved her boyfriend very much. They planned to marry as soon as things settled down. She would often show his photo to Françoise. They were two women in love.
Suddenly, yesterday, holding on to her big belly, pale, and disheveled, their neighbor Annie ran to Myrosya’s house.
“They’ve brought back our dead – our men beaten to death or shot. The soldiers who transported the bodies said that if any of us recognize our dead, we should take them away and bury them. Ivan’s mother identified her son right away. And now they’re already packing her off to Siberia as the mother of one of the dead. They are calling the whole village to come and claim the bodies. Oh, woe is us!” As she spoke, Annie rubbed her belly, feeling the contractions.
“Don’t go, girls; don’t go there. If you must go, then be silent!” said Yuri’s mother.
“I can’t be silent,” said Anna
“You can. You are pregnant; you are carrying your son. You will give birth and he will be the son of your beloved. So you must do this as a wife because Stephan will never return now.”
Myrosya and Annie went together. Annie could barely refrain from rushing to the body of her beloved. She held herself back with such force that bruises showed on her hands and stomach. Myrosya, seeing her loved one, turned white as a ghost and felt faint. The whole world swam before her eyes. The women turned around stony-faced and returned to their homes. Pain crackled in their heads and roared through their bodies.
The village elder was one of them. He gave the soldiers who’d brought the transport enough alcohol to drink themselves drunk. And then he spread the word throughout the village: “Take away the dead and bury them wherever you can.” This was done accordingly. But then Myrosya was arrested. The soldiers had gone through the pockets of her boyfriend and found letters from her, ordinary love letters, but they decided they were secret messages between the village and the resistance and that Myrosya was the messenger. And now here she was, at age 20, being carted away subject to abuse by the “guardians of order.”
Françoise felt sick. She felt that the sickness was everywhere, in every room, on the porch, in the garden, and in the air. Her mother-in-law said, “You’re probably pregnant, Fruzya.”
The young bride did not demur, even though her name was Françoise, not Fruzya.
“Yes, of course,” she said.
“Does Yuri know?”
“No, I will tell him when he returns home.”
She prayed to God that Yuri would not be needed or detained elsewhere or taken to the front.
But he didn’t come home that day or the next.
“Such are the times,” said the mother.
“Such are the times,” repeated Françoise.
A scream in the night startled her from sleep. It came from her neighbor Annie’s house. She was in labor. People came to fetch Yuri, but he was not there. Françoise went in his place. She had watched him; she had seen what he did – true, she knew only a little more than the others but even that was something.
Anna was in labor for a long time unable to birth the child. Someone called the midwife Christine from the neighboring village. She came and was able to save the child. Françoise was very upset, forgetting about her own problems. Sometimes another person’s grief overcomes your own. She could feel her blood flow; she could feel the fetus tear loose. She became ill, grew pale and lay lifelessly in bed. She waited for Yuri as if for a savior. She wanted to surprise him with the long-awaited joy, she wanted to tell him that they were going to have a child, she wanted him to know she would nurture his child. But by the time Yuri came back, it was too late. She had lost the child — and more. She had lost the ability to bear a child ever again.