As her Polish husband Petro lies dead in the snow outside their home, Ukrainian Paraskevia thinks about their life together. In this extract she remembers the war, when the Soviet army occupied the eastern Polish-Ukrainian borderlands, where she and Petro lived, and deported many Poles to Siberia.
Every seven years you should have a repeat wedding ceremony because—so Aunt Marynka used to say—every seven years you become a different person. So you should renew every sort of contract, commitment, mortgage agreement, recorded data, and personal identification. Every kind of document.
I am already my eleventh self. Petro is his thirteenth.
In my dreams Petro doubles and triples, one moment he’s young, the next he’s old. One moment he’s shouting at me, the next he’s cuddling up to me. In today’s dream he’s drinking hot tea from his ugly china cup. The tea’s steaming hot, and droplets of steam are settling on his eyebrows. Then they freeze and change into icicles, so he can’t open his eyes. He comes to me like a blind man and asks me to get them off him. Helplessly, I look around the kitchen in search of special tools. He says “the de-icer” or something like that, and points at a drawer. That means there’s a tool for removing ice from your eyes and he’s got one. He’s ready for anything.
There’s another difference between Petro and me, and I take satisfaction in noting it mentally. At the beginning you look for similarities rather than differences. You spend whole days asking all sorts of questions and discovering “me too,” “it’s exactly the same for me”. But the end is different. The similarities were just an innocent deception.
He didn’t know how to have fun; maybe that’s why he seemed so old to me, though when I first met him he wasn’t yet thirty-five. Even while dancing at his own wedding he was performing a duty. Yes, the dancing gave him pleasure, because it was meant to. But it was mechanical. Whatever he was doing, he did just that and nothing else. When he was painting the fence, he was painting the fence. When he was marking tests, he was marking tests. When he limped, he was completely lame-no one could have any doubt about it. When he was silent, he was like a dumb person. It’s comical to be in one place the whole time, one time the whole place, to grow attached to yourself like a homeless dog, never shift a millimeter from where you lie, and not keep looking at the outside.
I’m the opposite; I’m not in a fixed spot, no one can catch me. I’m always having fun. I play at sweeping up the rubbish and peeling the potatoes—I pretend it’s all a game. Now I’m playing a game where Petro has died and is lying frozen on the terrace, waiting for better times. I never take anything seriously. Now I’m having fun trampling out letters in the snow.
Aunt Marynka used to say that every day, just after sunset, the whole world goes sky-blue for three minutes on end. If you think of a wish as soon as you see the world go sky-blue, it will come true. I can see it right now through the window—the world is sky-blue. And I’m relieved to find I haven’t any wishes.
The first time the Russians appeared was at night, hiding behind the monotonous sound of their trucks. Petro was moaning with his ear pressed to the radio.
The first few days were full of whispers. People did nothing but whisper. The whispers rose over the village and glided like smoke from a chimney, low over the wheat fields. Then it all went quiet. The radios were the first thing they took away. You had to sit at home and wait. They started making lists, writing things down and organizing. By day they drove around in army vehicles raising clouds of yellow, September dust.
Petro lost his job. At night you could hear them making noises in the school, where they’d set up their billets—they kept shooting at the walls, firing at the portraits of Newton and Copernicus.
By now it was clear they’d deport the Poles. I found it out from Myron. But he actually stated it by saying something else. He put it like this: “Serve you right. You married an old man, and now you’re off to join the polar bears with him.” Or maybe it was Aunt Marynka who brought the news. What she actually said at the time was: “Do something. If you let yourself be moved out of here you’ll both be done for.” Just in case, while Petro was out, I took the icon off the wall and in its place I hung up the face of Stalin cut out of the newspaper.
Then they billeted a couple of Russian civilians on us. They were doctors. From that day on we shared the kitchen, which Petro couldn’t bear. He spent days on end sitting on the bed in our room and only came out when those two had left the kitchen—to avoid seeing them. But in fact they were nice people. We couldn’t understand each other very well, but how many words do you need to communicate? She was small and pretty, with a broad face and full lips, like a little weasel. One day, when we were talking about dresses, feeling each other’s skirt material and touching the shoulder pads in each other’s blouses, I discovered that this girl, Lyuba, didn’t wear any underpants. During the war they produced plenty of guns and rocket launchers, but no panties. While we were changing and trying on each other’s clothes, I was shocked to catch a glimpse of her naked buttocks and her surprisingly obvious hairy little beast.
Panties. Until then they had never seemed all that important—they couldn’t possibly be taken seriously. Yet it turned out that thanks to panties we could get by. I started making panties for the officers’ wives on the sewing machine Petro’s parents had given me as a wedding present. I cut out some paper patterns, and every day I made dozens of pairs of panties out of flowery calico, smooth, slippery satin, and white sheet cotton. Lyuba’s husband, Fyodor Ivanovich, would collect them wrapped in gray paper, then bring us money, alcohol, and tea in exchange. For the first time in my life I was working for myself and my family. We managed to go to Truskawiec, and now it was me who invited him out for ice cream—it was simply flowing down our arms. The shops weren’t empty yet, so I bought myself some beautiful spring shoes and a flask of perfume. I still had the flask at Lewin; though empty, it still bore the memory of that scent, which means it went half way round the world with me, lying quietly in my dressing table while other more important things got lost along the way. That squat little bottle with the black ebonite cap survived it all, but my child did not.
Those panties dulled our senses. I thought panties were the key to everything, that the success of the panty business would go on and on, protecting us from the worst. Rumors were going round that whole families were disappearing, that trucks came for them at dawn and carried them off to the east. Nothing like that had happened in our village yet, maybe because the soldiers were billeted in the school, just the other side of the fence, but maybe it’s true that you can’t see the wood for the trees. First I kept an eye on the devil’s abode across the fence, while pretending to be doing something in the garden, such as hanging out the washing on a line stretched between two plum trees. I watched them running up the steps and disappearing into the building, then rushing out of it again, leaping into a jeep and dashing off. I studied their faces and memorized the ranks marked on their shoulders. They were cocksure. The word “sleep” occurs to me now as I think of it—they were as sure of themselves as if they were asleep. As if it were all happening in their heads, while they, all those men in faded uniforms tightly buttoned to the neck, knew everything from start to finish in their sleep. They told me what had to happen. They were all playing a game of their own invention.
But one of them, the most important one with stars on his shoulders, was out of a nightmare. At first I thought it was two people, two officers with the same gait and a false hand in a black glove. Whenever he went up the steps into the school he was one person, and whenever he came out he was another. Only later, when I saw him from the front and our glances briefly met, did I realize the truth: the left side of his face was lifeless, disfigured by scars that knitted it into a painful grimace. His left hand was made of wood, and his left leg lagged behind, unable to keep pace with the right. So as he went into the school I saw his right side—a youthful face, bright-eyed, with a firm, straight nose, and a hand holding a cigarette to his lips. But whenever he came out he was a bundle of pain, a creature that has miraculously managed to survive the end of the world and decided, in spite of all, to go on living.
I put on my best flowery dress, painted my lips blood-red, and went to the school. I didn’t know what I’d do or say to charm the double man into leaving us in peace.
That was how I came face to face with Yuri Liberman. He was sitting and I was standing. On the table lay a pistol with its barrel aimed at the tile stove. I told him at once, as soon as I came in, that my husband might have a Polish surname, but he wasn’t a Pole, that we both belonged to the Uniate church, and as we were doing well, because I was a good housekeeper and my husband was a resourceful man, there might be some people who envied us and told tales about us. I realized I sounded like a little girl—this tissue of lies was pitiful. After all, they had documents including sections that issued sentences. “People are bound to dislike you. You’re so insolent,” he said in Russian and smiled with the healthy half of his face. The other half remained motionless.
I tried to interpret this two-facedness to find out what our sentence would be. Someone knocked and entered, the telephone rang, and suddenly Lieutenant Liberman was busy with something else and had stopped paying me any attention. I lost my self-confidence and slunk back to the door. As he paced about the room with the receiver in his hand I could see his face now from one, now from the other side. His gaze passed distractedly over my shoes, legs and dress.
“Come back this evening. I’ve no time now,” he said to me and put down the receiver.
I told Petro I was going to see Aunt Marynka. Before leaving the house I furtively drank some vodka while he was playing with Lalka on the kitchen floor.
I crept along close to the fence, skipping from one patch of moon shadow to the next. I felt myself heating up, and under arm my dress was damp with sweat. The sentry refused to let me into the school; he pointed his rifle at me and said in Russian: “Go away, woman,” so I stood in the shadow of a tree, shifting from foot to foot and staring up at the windows. As my dress dried out under the arms I started to shiver. “Damn and blast you, Liberman, you Bolshevik,” I kept saying angrily under my breath, and I was just about to go home when I saw the dead half of his face in the window. He couldn’t see me; he was looking up at the moon. Maybe for him it was like looking at a mirror—both of them had two faces.
Shivering, I came out of the shadows. The face in the window briefly turned toward me and then vanished. Soon after he appeared on the steps and stood waiting. The sentry pretended he’d never seen me before. Liberman led me down the school corridor and up the stairs, to the apartment where Petro and I had lived right after our wedding. Like a dream version of the bridegroom he took me into his home. There in our old bedroom I knew every patch of floor, every mark on the wall. Too ramshackle for us to take to the new house, our old double bed was still there. He told me to sit down on it. “What’s your name?” he asked, as he undressed slowly and methodically, hanging his uniform on the tall bedstead. I answered, and gave him Petro’s details, including his date of birth. Now I could see that the entire left-hand side of Lieutenant Liberman was asleep—his left arm hung lifelessly down his body and ended in a prosthesis, while his left leg was shackled in a sort of caliper that shone in the moonlight. He wasn’t shy in front of me, as if I weren’t human.
When he lay on top of me, I imagined I only had to deal with the live half of him. His body was agile and confident. Afterward he told me I was beautiful, but in a rather casual way, because he wasn’t actually looking at me—it was more as if he felt it necessary to cast something into the void between the papered walls of the teacher’s bedroom.
When I got home, Petro and the child were already asleep. I poured some water into the basin and washed myself in the dark kitchen. I felt a shudder of disgust, which retarded my sense of sin. But then at once came an unbearable pang of shame. Don’t think about it, thin-lipped Paraskevia in your red dress. The fire was dying in the range.
I went to see him a few times more, and it was meant to be a sacrifice. A crippled eastern dictator, unpredictable in his demands, ready for anything. I kept my eyes shut while it was happening, and tried to turn my face to the shabby wall, but he would pull it toward his. He wanted me to look at him. Then I began to yearn for him, for the smell of cigarettes that permeated his alien enemy uniform, for the surprise brought by every turn of his face. He was alive and dead, tender and cruel. He slept with me, then sentenced people to death. His power was repulsive, like solidifying aspic, yet I felt the desire to submit to it, to melt, to come to a standstill and be free of the need to make any sort of gesture. One day I saw him arrive in an army vehicle to supervise the deportation of Stadnicka and her parents, the Ruciñskis, and some other neighbors. He reminded me of a bird, because his eyes were empty, like a rooster’s. They say the Russians are emotional and sentimental. This one was different. Perhaps he wasn’t human at all. “Who are you?” I used to ask him, or “What happened to you?” as I drew my finger down the long scar that ran across his chest. He’d smile and reach for a cigarette, but he never told me anything.
Through the kitchen windows we watched people with suitcases and bundles forming a long, hopeless column. It was barely dawn. I took the sleeping Lalka in my arms. Petro was smoking a cigarette. Did our house have the sign of a guardian angel painted in blood above the door? Yuri Liberman was standing in the car, showing us the side of his face where no emotion could ever be detected. “What happened? Why not us? It’s our turn tomorrow for sure.” “He’ll find out sooner or later,” I thought. After that, growing more and more downcast, all day long he kept asking: “Why not me?”
Soon I realized I was pregnant. I went to see Aunt Marynka and told her everything. She hit me in the face, then took me to the next village, where an old woman called Matryona made me miscarry. I stayed the night at Aunt Marynka’s, and she went to tell Petro I was feeling unwell. I was ill for a month. Marynka never left my bedside, because I wanted to die, I wanted divine retribution to come down on me. She thought I regretted losing the child. But I wanted to die of yearning.
Once a Russian soldier came by, spoke with Marynka in the doorway, and left. She wouldn’t tell me what he wanted. She only talked about Petro, saying: “You must learn to love him as if he were weaker than you, not stronger.”
Then the commanders were transferred to some other place, but no one knew where. Afterward Marynka gave me a small package from Liberman, which that soldier had brought. In it there was an address, written in Russian on a scrap of gray paper, a gold chain with a cross, some rings, and a bit of material that looked as if it had been torn from an army shirt. I wrapped it all up in the paper and buried it in the orchard under a plum tree. A belated funeral for the child.
I can still see a strange thing—Liberman’s big toe, with its slightly misshapen nail; here, in this toe, all the power of the man with two faces collapses, becoming superficial and ridiculous. I’m ashamed of that toe. I’m not ashamed of the passionate lovemaking on his desk covered in documents, or the waves of pleasure it brought, though I should have felt nothing but disgust. What should have stayed hidden became plain to see.
Over the next few months Ukrainians moved into the abandoned cottages. Some of them were relatives of mine, like Horodyski and Kozovich, but they regarded us with suspicion, not as they used to. In fact Horodyski had a Polish wife, which was plainly better than having a Polish husband. Somehow women weren’t conspicuous, though they should have been. After all, whole nations got started in their bellies.
“Tell me, is it true?” Petro asked me later on, staring hard into my eyes.
“No, it’s not,” I said.
© Olga Tokarczuk. Translation © 2005 by Antonia Lloyd-Jones. All rights reserved.