Sunday, December 10, 2006
The Black Icon--Chapter Eight +
Spring of l942 found the family in high spirits. Mail from Germany now arrived every week. Michael wold include a healthy banknote in each letter. Sophia bought clothes and food for the family. The near-starvation of the past winter now seemed a bad dream. And then Michael announced that he was coming home on a furlough.
In a month he arrived, resplendent and strange: bright brown suit to match his eyes; loud, wide rainbow tie, and two-tone shoes, the latest thing in Germany. Shiny patent leather suitcase full of dry goods and toys for the children. And a gunnysack full of blackmarket items.
Genyk was thrilled by this modish stranger who was no one less than his own father, back from a distant land, filling the children's hand with toys, telling them all about the Rhineland and its castles, promising Genyk and Katerina that they too would see Germany soon.
Genyk spent hours firing off his shiny new flame-spitting pistol. Past suffering was forgotten. Genyk felt he would always be safe and secure in the care of this distant god who was his father.
The family took the train to Kolomya, the nearest town and had a photograph taken, Genyk standing at the end of the Podolski family lineup, not knowing what was going on until the portrait arrived a few days later. There was his father, looking prosperous and healthy, rich chesnut hair not a bit spoiled by the sepia tone, character lines already forming handsomely around the straight, resolute mouth. And Mother, her bright print kerchief restraining the long, gypsy-black hair, breasts straining trhough a man's suitcoat, striped, yellow silk skirt covering her thighs. Katerina, prim and efficient-looking in her simple, but well-embroidered peasant outfit. And there, at the end of the line, stood Genyk, a blond, round-faced child. Small mouth and puffy cheeks; well fed and healthy.
Michael vanished as quickly as he had come. He left Sophia a little money, assured her that he was better off in Germany now where he was sure of work and money and told her to wait. To himself, Michael was thinking, "So what if I'm a showpiece and the factories are full of slave labourers working terrible hours, women getting their hair caught in machines. So I am the only slave labourer who knows how to make wooden panels for Mercedes-Benz station wagons by hand; they didn't make me a showpiece slave labourer for nothing." Michael had been chosen by "Signal", the German propaganda magazine, to be a story subject and example of how well foreign workers were doing in Germany. He had been picked, but for the others, it had been pure hell and starvation rations. There were people in his factory who hated him." There might be a pension for me," he lied to Sophia. "Then I can come back and resume my contracting business."
Sophia, three hundred marks richer, seeing the children health and bright, mad no complaint.
But the prospect of spending her nights alone in her bed made an empty gully of her stomach. At the railway station, she kissed Michael long and hard while the children cried.
Summer. Sophia, strong and healthy, aching for a man, tended the fields: feeling the earth fertile and soft under her sun-bright hoe, working hard and long to take her mind off Michael. The sound of the implement chunking into the earth, the habitual, easy motion of her body, all helped to eash a sharp, white yearning.
In the distance, towards the west, a train moved noislessly through a heat haze, smoke puffing white and dreamy through the windbreaks.
Near Sophia, bees buzzed amng clumbs of blue wildflowers slated for execuction under her hoe.
In about an hour, Sojphia would join up with Kalyna Ostapnova, her neighbour. Already the other woman was walking towards Sophia from her own adjoining tract.
The sight of Kalyna and her son working towards Sophia took Sophia's mind off her own troubles.
"Poor overworked Kalyna," Sophia thought.
Kalyna was widowed and her son was a congenital idiot.
Kalyna's offspring was a leering, howling mass of disjointed emotion. When frustrated or in a fit of temper he would strike out at his mother or anybody nearby. The woman would retaliate with a hoe or pitchfork...He could not be hurt! The vituperativeness of the retarded. She hated this stone-deaf bull-like creature and cursed every day she had to live with him. Often, when Sophia worked near th Ostapovna place, she could hear the thirty-year-old howling like an animal.
He would have been six feet tall if able to stand erect: Hunchbacked, hatchetfaced, "a blight upon my life" Kalyna had often complained Mother and son lived near the railway depot, the idiot often disturbing debarking passengers
with his attempts to speak to anyone and everyone, the resulting sound being a broken, choked "Bronx cheer".
The pair now neared Sophia. Sophia could see the wiry, pleasantly-featured woman prodding the imbecile while he held his hoe like something strange and uneartly, a curious-making, but unsolvable manifestation of the cosmos. Every so often, the woman would punch the thirty-year-old cretin in the side to goad him from one potato clump to the next. The idiot would howl, his wild-eyed lantern of a face threatening and somehow unearthly.
"Bozhe Pomahai," Sophia greeted the pair.
"Bozhe Pomahai," Kalyna answered. "How are you doing with your husband away?"
"I would be doing a lot better if he were here," Sophia answered, straightening up from her work and passing a over a sweaty, very sweaty brow. "At least you have a husband," Kalyna said. "All I have is this," she said, pointing to the now seated Chyvago, legs spread, sifting leaves and soil though his misshapen hands, every so often looking up at the sky and burbling like a baby. "The will of God," Kalyna sighed.
"Yes, the will of God, " Sophia said uncertainly, contemplaing Kalyna's life, and her own empty months ahead without a husband.
Kalyna's dull grey eyes peered at Sojphia through parchment crinkles. Sophia seemed like a tired Madonna under the cowl-like kerchief.
"Why don't you go dancing, kick up your heels a little?" she said to Sophia.
"That's all I'd need. They're enough people her who'd just love to write a letter. I'd lose my paper man.
They chatted on while beginning to work outwards from their meeing point. As the distance increased, they exchanged less and less, sophia watching Chyago being booted from one row to th next, efvery so often shaking a fist at his prodding mother.
Sophia worked long into the hot afternoon, the sung hanging lower wih every pause she took to straighten and clear the kinks from her back. By suppertime she was in harmonywith herself, pleasanly, hungry, looking forward to eating withthe children.
That night, Sophia a fell asleep beside the children surrendering to the sweet warm blackness, dreams of straight-shouldered men with god-like eyes forgotten as soon as they occurred.
Katrina, now eleven years old, was stuck for days at a time with Genyk, a maddening kneee-breeched question mark whoul would not leave her alone for a minute. Why is the sun bright? Who is God? How did you get that red mark on your cheek?-- It never goes away!
"I fell on a a rail at the tracks and hit my face, long ago, Katerina would aswer the question.
Nex day Genyk would be at it again.
"How did you get that red mark on your cheek?
"I told you. I slipped and fell on the railroad track.
Though Katerina loved Genyk, perhaps a little too much as older sisters can be twisted and cruel, the little blond brother was her cross. Sohia had instructed Katerina to take the boy wherever she went.
Whenever off to Elena's, Katerina's girlfriend, Genyk had to be constantly enterained and taken care of, whimpering when ever neglencted.
"Tell me a story...Why don't you talk to me? Why do crabs smell when you take the out of the water? ...You're walking too far in front of me.
Over the months, Katerina worked out a system. Wherever she went, she would lead the boy around by means of a stick. "I'm the engine and your'e the train."
They would trot for days along the Towmach Brook, its willow smell wafting into their nostrils. And then the storng, musky smell of prawn thrown up on the sandy banks by naked, laughing village chidren.
By winter when the village steamed and cracked in the silent cold, Katerina was resigned to life with t he imp.
Sleighing,shovelling snow,shivering with cold during open -air Masses on the frozen brook, the Feast of Jordan with her two -foot runny-nosed shadow beside her. And shivering.
.............end chapter nine space break.