Authors: Andy Szpuk
SLIDING ON THE SNOW STONE
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'Sliding on the Snow Stone' is the copyright of the author, Andy Szpuk, 2011. All rights are reserved.
The cover design by Isabel Szpuk and Simon Klymyszyn, incorporating a photograph by P
Stefan, a lifetime later . . .
You should see how many tablets I have to take: about a dozen every morning. But before I dose myself up, I have to get out of bed. So, once I’m awake and feel the shooting pains in my arms and legs, I push myself up, and swing my legs out of bed. It takes a bit of effort. Then I sit on the edge of the bed for a minute or two.
I get up, walk out of the bedroom and make my way downstairs carefully, making sure I use the handrail. Then I make myself a cup of tea and some breakfast. Or sometimes my wife Maria makes it for me. Then I take my tablets.
I’ve been in this world for more than 80 years now and it feels like it. It’s no fun getting old, I can say that much, but the fact I’m actually still here is a miracle in itself. I give thanks to God every day for each precious moment of life. I wash the tablets down with my tea. During the course of the day I have to take another dozen. If I could jump up and down I reckon I’d rattle.
Then I get myself dressed and walk to the bus stop. I can only walk slowly with a stick. When the bus comes I sit near the front. I enjoy the ride into town, after all it doesn’t cost me anything with my pensioner’s bus card. I usually go for coffee with my friend Bronec. He’s Polish. I’m Ukrainian. He’s all right. I’ve known him a few years now. We talk about all sorts of things, have a laugh and a joke, but today Bronec’s not around. So, I’ve got my son with me, Andriy. He’s a man now, he’s got a family of his own, but he’s come to see me today. He asks me what language is spoken when I meet up with Bronec. I shrug my shoulders and explain that I speak in Ukrainian to Bronec, while he speaks Polish, and we fill any gaps in English.
Andriy’s been asking me lots of questions just lately, about what happened all those years ago. The trouble is, my memory’s not so good these days, and it was a long time ago. I don’t know if I really even want to remember some of the things that happened.
We all have memories, they’re a big part of us. There’s no escape from them. We can try and block them, or shut them out, but it’s futile. We always remember the good times: The Christmases, the birthdays, the weddings, the laughter and the smiles. They make us feel good, but some memories have to be pushed down. They have to be buried so deep it becomes a form of torture. When the Second World War ended, many people celebrated, all over the world. Don’t get me wrong. I was relieved just like everyone else, but what happened to me leading up to the end of the War affected me for the rest of my life. There are many things I’d like to forget, but can’t.
Ukrainian proverb: There are many lies but barely one truth
My first memory is of Soviet soldiers carrying corpses away. Looking from a window of our house, this is what I saw. I was five years old, not old enough to fully understand what was happening. A horse drawn wagon clattered along the road, and there was a small group of uniformed soldiers picking the bodies up and throwing them onto the bed of the wagon.
I ran to my father. He was sitting on an old wooden chair in our kitchen with his elbows on his knees and his head in his hands. His face was pale, and his cheeks were sunken in, all hollow. His eyes glistened in the gloom.
Father! What’s happening? What’s wrong with all those people out there? Are they sick?’ He didn’t reply, but he looked up at me.
What is it, Father? What’s going on?’
Stefan, I can’t answer your questions now.’ He spoke softly, his voice shaking.
Why are the soldiers taking all those people?’
Be quiet Stefan!’ When Father raised his voice we knew that was the end of it. That’s how it was then. We children did as we were told when an adult’s voice was raised. So, I ran round to our neighbour’s house where my friend Bohdan lived. I knocked on the door. There was no answer. The door was slightly ajar so I pushed it open a little further. I peered through the crack and I saw his mother and father sitting together on their old sofa. They were hugging each other and sobbing. The door creaked and opened still further. They looked up at me.
Come in Stefan, come in.’ Bohdan’s father beckoned to me.
I stepped through the doorway and walked towards them. Bohdan’s mother pulled me to her and hugged me tight.
Where’s Bohdan?’ I asked.
He’s gone! He’s gone!’ She began to wail.
When will he be back?’
He won’t be coming back,’ replied his father, unable to control the tremor in his voice.
In Ukraine, it was the time of the Holodomor*; the year was 1932. It was a famine created by the Soviets. They began by taking away all our grain, and once they’d done that, they stripped rural Ukraine of all its food produce. There was nothing left to eat. Of course, back then I didn’t know all that. I was just a boy.
As I walked back home from Bohdan’s house I looked back down towards the road, and in the beautiful summer sunshine, lingering upon a background of a deep blue sky, there was something strange in the air. It was a smell like nothing I had ever known. It made me feel sick. I watched the soldiers dragging away the dead bodies and throwing them onto their wagons. They were chatting to each other as if it were just another day’s work, as if what they were doing was perfectly normal. I didn’t understand. It didn’t seem real. Was it some sort of game? It couldn’t be. These were neighbours and friends, turned into skeletons, just skin and bone. Some of the bodies were collected from the neighbouring houses, some from front gardens, and others from near the communal well that gave us its precious gift of water. Some of the bodies were strewn along the side of the road. Many of them were our neighbours, people whose homes I’d visited to play with their children, like Bohdan. I watched more and more bodies being thrown onto the wagon, there were men, women and even some children. I realised then where Bohdan had gone.
It was close to dinner time, and one of the soldiers walked away from the wagon, leaving the other four to cover up the bodies with canvas sheets. He came back a few minutes later with a pail of water from the well. He clunked it down onto the end of the wagon and the soldiers got hold of a tin mug each from a storage box. They took a good, long drink and splashed water on their faces and hands. Then, each of them pulled out a hunk of bread and a piece of meat, again from that storage box, and they slumped down on the grass verge with their hats pushed back. Their eyes lit up as they bit chunks from the thick slices of bread and meat. I couldn’t believe what I saw. These men had food, while all around them was starvation and death. They sat in the middle of all this and ate their meal, without a care, without even a tear of remorse. Along the side of our approach was a row of stones that separated the grass from the track, and I had an urge to get hold of one and throw it at the soldiers, so I bent down and picked one up. It was the size of a large potato, and how I wished it was one, so I could forget about those soldiers, and take it inside for Mother to cook and fill myself up with it. It was just a stone though, hard, smooth and solid. In my mind, I had this idea I could run down our approach with the stone raised above my head, yelling at the top of my voice until I was close enough to hurl it right at one of those grinning Soviets, and split his head right open, causing blood to spurt out and for him to feel some pain. Let him wail like some of the mothers of the dead children in our village. He wouldn’t be sat around shoving bread into his face and joking with his friends then. Before I could do anything else, Father appeared next to me and he saw the stone raised above my head. He looked down the approach and saw the soldiers having their dinner, ‘Stefan, come on. Come inside now. Keep away from those soldiers. They’ve got guns. If you bother them, they’ll use them. I’ve heard about soldiers killing children around here. You mustn’t go near them.’
I lowered my arm and the stone rolled onto the ground. Father and I went inside where we joined Mother and my brother, Volodimir, for our midday meal. All we got on this occasion was half a cup of cold milk. Some days we got nothing at all. After this meagre lunch, I went outside once again and the soldiers weren’t around. I ran down the road to look for my friends, the ones I played with most days, the few that were still around.
At the end of our road lived an old couple, Viktor and Katrina. They worked in the Kolhosp, the Soviet state controlled collective farm. I remember hearing Father talking about them and cursing them for collaborating with the Soviets. Viktor and Katrina kept themselves to themselves, but sometimes when my friends and I ran down the road playing our games, Viktor would shout at us from the front of his house, ‘Hey, you boys! Keep the noise down will you? Can’t a fellow get some peace around here?’ We stopped to look at him, just long enough to see he was a bit mad with us. Then we turned and ran off, kicking up a cloud of dust behind us which spiralled away in the breeze. Many people, such as Viktor and Katrina, accepted the Soviet yoke and got on with living that life. They were peasants, used to leading a simple life. They were those of the village who hadn’t prospered on their own, so didn’t have much to lose. They adopted Soviet rule almost without thinking. And of course there was also the fear. It was in the air all around us. The Soviets showed no sense of justice. If anyone dared to speak out against them, it was one of two things. The salt mines in Siberia, or a bullet in the back of the head. In some ways the second option was more attractive. Siberia was a desolate, barren, freezing place, and to work there in such atrocious conditions was a worse fate.
Even with threats such as those hanging over us, there were those who didn’t agree with Soviet rule and all that went with it. There were many who despised the Soviets, but were careful who they spoke to. Sometimes, Father could be heard having whispered conversations in the kitchen with one or two of his oldest, most trusted friends. We couldn’t always make out very much of what was being said, but these were people who were proud to be Ukrainian. They longed for Ukraine to be free.
It was just the four of us in our house, Mother, Father, my brother Volodimir and me. Mother and Father worked hard to bring us up, to put food on the table. After all, is that not what family life is all about? Sitting down to eat together is something all families do, but it got so bad that our parents couldn’t provide for us. There was simply no food. Father told us of the old days when there was plenty; he tried to make us understand that things could be better. It was hard for us to comprehend, because for us children, this was our world. Maybe this was how life was? It didn’t show signs of getting any better.
That’s why, whenever I could, I ran around the village and the surrounding area with my friends, although there were many times, without much in the way of food inside us, we were so weak we just sat inside our homes.
That summer was a glorious one, with blue skies and licks of warm sunshine wrapping around us just about every day. We boys had chores, and a usually fruitless daily quest for food, but whenever we could, we’d call round for each other. Bohdan would knock on our door, in the days when he was still around, and Mother would shout to me. My boots would be on in a matter of seconds and Volodimir usually joined us. Another boy, Miron, also accompanied us, and we charged out of the village into the nearby woods. We were skin and bone, there was nothing on us, but we could still run. In our minds we were like the wind, flying through the village. This was our escape, our way of getting away from the sickness and suffering around us, and of course we did what all children do, we played games.
Come on, Stefan!’ yelled Bohdan as he snapped a suitably thick stick and swished it around him like an expert swordsman, ‘the Poles are coming!’
Determined to outdo him, I got hold of a thicker, longer stick and tried to snap it away from its tree trunk, ‘I’m right here!’ I yelled back, as the stick put up a struggle, until a final tug made it mine, ‘Chaarrrge! There are too many for you, my Hetman. I’m on my way!’
Bohdan always insisted on being Hetman* Bohdan Khmelnytsky, the greatest of all Kozak commanders, and how could any of us argue with him? He had the right name. So he led us. Miron and Volodimir also got themselves sticks and the three of us followed our Hetman.
This way, men! We take the higher ground and then we ride down into them. Slash them to pieces, boys!’
As supreme horsemen and the bravest of warriors, we battled deep into the evening, repelling wave after wave of invaders. We didn’t care about the cool, evening breeze creeping through the holes in our ragged clothes.
Cut them down, boys! Destroy them!’ cried Bohdan, and we slashed and charged until our arms and legs wobbled like jelly.
Back to the camp!’ he shouted, but not so loud that time. Like the rest of us, his bones were weary and his breath was short, and so we trudged to our usual spot, a fallen tree trunk; the biggest one in those woods. The Poles were a fierce enemy. Our battles with them through the history of our Ukrainian nation were legendary, with our borders switching back and forth countless times; every inch of our land has been paid for in Kozak blood.
And so, after sitting down to rest for a few minutes, further commands were issued from Bohdan, ‘Right! This camp will be our kingdom. We must build a castle here!’
Yes, sir!’ cried back we three, and all of us went in search of fallen logs and sticks. We hauled as many as we could back to that tree trunk and leant them either side, covering them with smaller sticks and long grass. It wasn’t the biggest castle in the world, and a wobbly construction, but it was our fortress. We’d defend it to the death. No one would ever take it from us, we’d drive them away.
The sunsets in those woods were beautiful, the red and orange of the sun formed a delicious glowing crescent on the horizon that I wanted to grab hold of and eat. Those flickering stabs of light cut through the trees, they sliced through the twisted branches, giving us our own magic garden of light to play in. The real world was forgotten.
Eventually, darkness began to fall on us, and we were forced to return to our homes. We breathed hard on the way back, and passed many bodies lying in the road, of people who had simply dropped and died of starvation. The road we walked along to get home was the one that led to the town. In desperation, these people had tried to escape, tried to get to the town, in the vain hope they might find food there.
As we walked along we could feel the hunger in our bellies, and I wondered when I would next eat. There were times, even as a boy of five, when I thought about what the future might hold for me, my family and friends.
Would we be next? Would it be our mothers and fathers, or our brothers and sisters? Who could tell? We’d just been in the woods slashing away with our wooden swords, believing we could defend our land, but could we really? It was like the whole of Ukraine was waiting to die.
The Soviet soldiers came back the next day and it was always the same routine. First of all, they searched all the houses and dwellings for food. They turned everything upside down. Any possible hiding place was invaded by prying Soviet fingers. With Father already at his place of work, the local nail factory, it was left to my mother to deal with the soldiers. One of them came into our kitchen with a pair of large metal, lidded pails and slammed them onto the floor,
Fill them.’ The soldier fixed a sneer on Mother and ran his eyes up and down her.
Yes, y-yes, sir.’ Mother turned towards a pair of buckets that were positioned in the coolest part of the kitchen. With shaking hands she poured milk from the buckets into the two pails, trying not to spill any. The milk was from our cow. Even though the Soviets stripped every scrap of food away from our village, they allowed us to keep livestock, on the principle that animals would produce food such as milk and eggs for their ever increasing food demands. Of course, without grain and food, most of the animals perished, or were slaughtered, cooked and eaten. Somehow, we kept our cow alive.