Vowels, Vodka and Voices

Hannah Thirty-six

Friday, 4:30 PM Chernihiv, Ukraine

She remembered running into the forest. Looking down, she could see her toddler-sized shoes, dark brown with a strap, padding against the soft dirt of the forest floor. It was a summer day, then as now. Tall trees that her small child-sized arms could reach around quickly surrounded Hannah. Khanna malyshka. Little Hannah.

She and – who was with her, another child? – gathered kindling. They followed an older man – her father? – as he found one after another cache of secret mushrooms. He carried a burlap bag over his shoulder for the mushrooms, wore a cap on his head, called teasingly to the children to stay away from Baba Yaga.

They returned from the forest to her home, alongside the tall folga zdaniye – tin-foil building – a child’s name for the factory. The little boy ran into the house next door.

Her mother sat outside on the porch, working at a large wooden table. She was kneading salt and pepper into chunks of meat, then placing the meat into a large bowl with ripe round cut-in-half tomatoes. Fresh chopped dill tickled Hannah’s nose, making her laugh. She picked up a handful and tossed it into the bowl as her mother continued to work the spices into the meat and tomatoes.

Her mother wiped her hands on her apron, picked up the bowl, motioned to Hannah to bring the kindling and the longer cuttings of dill. They joined her father under a tall trellis covered in vines. Her father placed the sack of mushrooms on top of a large, flattened paper bag on the ground. Her mother took the kindling from Hannah and started the fire, laying the dill on top.

Hannah’s mother and father began sorting through the mushrooms, putting aside some for today’s meal and saving others for later. Soon, the fire turned to embers. They placed the marinated meat onto the hot grid of steel rods, then added the mushrooms and tomatoes on top.

Her father turned and looked over to the house next door, where the small boy stood on the porch. Hannah heard her father’s voice clearly as he spoke in English.

“Anton, tell your parents,” he called, “come. We eat soon. Barbekyu.

Cleo Thirty-six

Friday, 5:45 PM Outside Chernihiv, Ukraine

Cleo stepped to the living room window of the tiny two-story dacha Anton had been so delighted to show them. From this view, she looked out to four country lanes, duplicate dachas lined up and down in wide-spaced rows of similar living.

She could see other neighborhoods in the distance, countryside escapes, Anton had explained, where people could grow their vegetables and feel some relief from the city’s Soviet-style apartments of large group living. And where they could enjoy barbekyu.

She looked out over rows of cabbages, carrots, and tall greens. Four fruit trees, perhaps cherry or apricot, rimmed the small garden. Anton had proudly announced a long litany of other produce that Cleo couldn’t identify. There was a small pasture-like space behind the fenced garden. Somewhere among the rows were potatoes.

Cleo judged they were 30 minutes northwest from Chernihiv. The driver had left them off in front of the small brick home, and Anton, at the same moment, stood taller and appeared more relaxed.

During the drive, Cleo had noticed the forest thin out. Rambling farm spaces with plots of smaller trees here and there began to appear along the countryside roads. They had taken the freeway a short distance, then turned off onto a two-lane highway with broad shoulders for buses to collect and leave off patrons.

The neighborhood of miniature houses was visible from the highway. Cleo and Hannah could walk back and catch a bus to Chernihiv, then the train to Kyiv.

The window was shut. Her view was interrupted by a wrought ironwork guard, and that distinctive three-paned window. She looked out past the garden and saw each tiny two-story dacha in the neighborhood. Made of light-colored brick, some with a diamond design on one side, each rose like tall barn-shaped Lego homes, each surrounded by a roughly 40-foot square garden yard, with a small pasture to the rear.

As evening began to descend, there was a chill to the air that Cleo had not noticed in Kyiv. Smoke began to rise from the middle of some of the dachas‘ roofs, coming out of tall ceramic pipes from the center of the rooflines. Cleo thought it was all so unfamiliar, yet she could identify many parts to the whole of the picture she witnessed.

In the yard, Anton and Hannah stood around a small, square black iron barbecue resting on the ground. Cleo saw Hannah reach for a jacket Anton had brought out. As she put it on, Anton layered chicken, potatoes, tomatoes and corn onto the heated coals.

Cleo had left them several minutes before, weary of trying to understand their language. She suspected they were speaking something quite different from the Ukrainian with which they had begun. She was tiring of the oppressive language spectacle that punctuated this venture. When would they return to simple English? In that language, Cleo could function.

   She had come inside the house to find the bathroom. She had found the kitchen with a wood-burning oven and no running water. She had found the living room to the side of the kitchen, and up a ladder – not a staircase, a simple true ladder – on the second floor, she had found two bedrooms. A powder room, she had not found.

Looking out past Hannah and Anton, she saw a very suspicious looking small wooden shack. Outhouse, it had to be. There was much about this country escapade that was becoming tiresome.

Cleo walked to the door, looked down at the shoes she had removed before coming inside. Had she purchased them just yesterday? She wished for a sidewalk and many-storied buildings with frail balconies and people who spoke English with a strong accent. She missed Kyiv. Again.

She heard Anton’s voice from the yard. “Cleo, bring jacket, come, we eat soon. Barbekyu.”

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