July 7, Staroyemesto, Ukraine
Unfortunately, Anton had brought with him celebratory vodka. He had apparently known Cleo would approve. Hannah put out her hand to cover the third shot glass as he poured the drinks.
“No vodka, Hannah?” asked Cleo.
“My birch tea is hearty enough.”
Hannah raised her cup of tea.
“Bud’mo,” Anton raised his shot glass.
“That’s not the toast you made last time, Anton,” said Cleo, hesitating, her fingers around her cup, a laugh waiting to emerge.
“I have learned,” said Hannah, “that there is a usual order to giving a toast here. But I think Anton has an order all his own in mind.”
“Ukrainian toast. Bud’mo.” Anton downed the first round.
“Bud’mo.” Hannah sipped her tea.
“Bud’mo.” Cleo drank the oily liquid, shook her head. “Wow.”
Her American English approximation of the Ukrainian word made Hannah smile. What a pleasure to hear an easy word, enjoy the context, the honest fun and the interplay of languages.
“Vodka homemade,” said Anton.
Hannah heard the simple pride in his voice, an emotion transferred through sound in all languages. Anyone would notice, anyone would draw the same conclusion. Anton poured two more glasses, in a motion offered a tot to Hannah, who shook her head.
“Russian drinking toast. Za zdarovye.” He raised his glass.
“Za zdarovye,” said Hannah.
“What you said,” said Cleo.
They toasted. The meat on the barbeque crackled. Hannah bent over the grill, turned the meat, placed the mushrooms and potatoes on top, then a layer of fresh dill over it all. Hannah picked up a plate from the table.
“I think we should fortify ourselves. Cleo, take a piece of bread and dip it in the salt. It’s a custom I’ve picked up in the neighborhood.”
“Bread and salt,” said Anton, pouring a third round.
Hannah offered the plate to Anton, then took a piece of salty dark bread for herself.
Cleo picked up the toast for the third round. “Cheers.”
“Cheers,” said Anton and Hannah.
Two small shot glasses were upended and one tea cup sipped. Hannah noticed Cleo close her eyes and take a deep, irregular breath, the effect of vodka, no doubt. Then she spoke, her words sounding tight, like they had to be forced out.
“I brought you a gift from JS.”
“Misha?” said Hannah. “Sending me gifts?”
“I’ll go get it.”
“Don’t hurry,” said Hannah.
Cleo seemed eager, but her announcement gave Hannah a chill that a sip of the birch tea couldn’t warm. Cleo hurried back with the box.
“So,” she said. “A perfect solution. It makes everyone happy. Everyone gets what they want. You, freedom. JS, your talent. What is left of it.”
Cleo paused and Hannah could see that she was hoping for a smile. Hannah smiled. Cleo handed her the package. Hannah patted the present, then placed it to the side.
“Soon, soon,” she said. “Our dinner wants some attention. These coals can be overenthusiastic if they are not watched closely.”
“We’re right here, Hannah. Everything is fine. Open the package.”
“Anton promised he would show you the garden before the sun goes down. The present can wait.”
“Dah, dah. The garden.”
Anton got up from his seat, answering the hint and led Cleo on a short tour up and down the five rows that he had recently planted. Hannah laid plates and silverware around the table, setting their places for dinner. The sun was beginning to set, and the heat had become an intense memory instead of an oppressive reality. The day itself seemed to sigh. Hannah looked around her garden yard, still amazed that this place and she had a joined past.
The meal sizzled its readiness, Hannah piled the meat, mushrooms and potatoes together on a platter and placed it on the table. She stepped to the water barrel to wash her hands, then called out to the others.
“Wash up. We eat.”
After the pre-meal shot of vodka, Hannah listened to the mealtime sounds. Plates scraped, utensils clicked, and then the wonderful vocal sounds of the pleasure of good food. Hannah appreciated this respite from the tangle that had been her life for more years than she wanted to number.
Anton lined up the glasses for a mid-meal toast. Hannah tested the teapot, poured herself a fresh cup.
“My brew,” said Anton. The drinks were again up-ended.
They returned to meal, finishing up with one last toast, a silent salute to the three of them.
Anton then placed his shot glass onto the table top, then slowly folded his arm to cushion his head as he nodded off to sleep. Hannah looked to Cleo. But Cleo had already sunk onto her arms on the table top. A snore came from Anton.
Hannah moved the unopened package away from the comfortable remnants of their meal. She knew Misha had sent the latest audio/video device. Hannah wouldn’t be learning to use it. Not yet. Maybe never. Hannah placed her hand over the patch on the bone behind her ear. There was no sensation of heat or pain. But the memories had not yet faded.
Hannah picked up her tea cup, glad her companions had not stayed awake for a last toast.
“To having no pain, no trouble,” she said.
… or is this a better ending?
Thank you so much for reading ‘Vowels, Vodka and Voices’. I hope you enjoyed it as much as I enjoyed having you all along for the ride. Warm regards – Susan