Mar 072011

by Natalie Pepa

Ever since I was a little girl, growing up in a village outside Buenos Aires, I was haunted by an old Ukrainian story.  I often heard it from my mother in a traditional song, her way of keeping intact the strings that tied her to her family and her homeland.  A past she and my father lost during the war.

Oh, do not go young man to the evening revels

For you’ll find the girls there are bewitching devils.

And the one with eyebrows most charming and dark

Knows every spell and will make you her mark.

She dug for herbs on Sunday

She rinsed them clean on Monday

She boiled the brew on Tuesday

And poisoned him on Wednesday

I listened and pictured a forest, a cauldron over an open fire and a young woman stirring the contents that she would feed to the unwitting young man. My imagination became dark and thick as did my eyebrows when I turned from childhood to adolescence.  What had the young man done to deserve death?  I did not find the answer until I was old enough to read the book written by Olga Kobylianska, and then I read and re-read it time and again.  The book’s Ukrainian title–V nediliu rano zillia kopala–means On Sunday morning she dug for herbs.

Olga Kobylianska was born in the southwestern region of Ukraine called Bukovina–land of birches.  The land lies at the foot of the Carpathian mountains which run across Ukraine’s western border and separate it from Poland, Slovakia, Romania, Hungary, and Moldavia.  When Kobylianska described the scenery in her novel–a remote village bordered by a cold stream rumbling from Chabanyza mountain, trees coming down from the top in thick rows, narrow passes bordered by grassy cliffs and a forest of white birches–it was like visiting a familiar spot.

My father was born not too far from here, in a village among firs and birches, in the shadow of a mountain.  When he told me about his childhood, his hikes through the mountains and valleys, he spoke with such passion that I felt I was walking with him.  I could see the craggy mountain passes, smell the lush grasses on birch forest floors and hear the distant mournful sound of the trembita–a giant wooden horn used by shepherds.

More of Kobylianska’s novel touched on the familiar.  Into a remote village at the foot of mount Chabanyzia, a band of gypsies arrived one day.  The elders of the village worried about these “dark visitors,” whose ancient sin doomed them to roam the earth forever.  Legend told how gypsies had denied shelter to Joseph and Mary on their flight through Egypt.  God cursed them and turned them into eternal wanderers.  In the story, the villagers only granted the gypsies permission to stay a few days.

Something about gypsies fascinated me, touched a deep secret in my gut.  Perhaps it was my own rootlessness, and a gnawing sense of doom.  Perhaps it was my fascination with our Romanian friend Madame Azha–a frequent visitor–who read fortunes.  Perhaps it was my father’s childhood stories about an old man, a Moldavian blind gypsy who played the violin at funerals.  I liked their darkness, their mystery, their otherness. It made me feel less of an outsider in a land where I did not feel I belonged.

On the second night of the gypsies’ stay, an uproar began.  Mavra, the young wife of voivode Radhu–the gypsy leader–gave birth.  When Mavra’s mother and the other women attendants shrieked on seeing the blond head, the secret Mavra carried for nine months was exposed.  Her lover’s seed had grown into a child.  It had been so different than with Rahdu.  She feared and respected her husband, but there had never been love, and no child.  Night after night in their tent, Rahdu took her with a desperation palpable on his moist skin.   But with her lover, the lovemaking had been in the shadow of the mountain, in the fields between the town and the camp–and the desperation was Mavra’s.  He was a nobleman who had come to their gypsy camp for weeks, his eyes burning with a blue flame until she finally succumbed.  Among fragrant high grasses she gave herself fully to a man whom she truly did not know.  Then he disappeared into the night on his elegant white horse and she never saw him again.

This was powerful stuff for a nine year old, and the story held me in a vice.  What did I know then of giving up body or soul to a man?

Nothing could mollify Rahdu’s anger, not even the pleas of Mavra’s mother or Andronati, Mavra’s father, elders of the gypsy clan.

“Kill the bitch and her white whelp,” Rahdu yelled again and again in the circle of men around a bonfire.  He strutted among them, threw fistfuls of gold coins for any man who would carry out the deed.  It was not easy to accept such a task.  The men were torn between their sympathies for their leader and the great respect they felt for the woman’s father–the elder Andronati.  They sat motionless, heads down.  Finally Andronati stood up.

“Listen to me, everyone,” he said.  “My daughter has sinned and must be punished.  If not by us today, then someday by the god who is above us all.”

He walked toward the voivide and faced him.

“My wife gave birth only once, and it was a daughter.  When you married Mavra, you became the son I always wanted.”

The old man  put his arms about the young leader and embraced him hard.

“I love you as my own child,” Andronati said, his voice breaking.  “Why stain your hands with death, Rahdu?  Leave her to her maker.”

“And what is to be of the white dog?” rasped Rahdu.

“Let me take them both away.  The child is doomed by his white skin–you’d tear him to pieces if he remained among you.”

His voice broke again and he continued in a whisper.

“He is better off dead–he belongs neither to our world nor outside–”

I identified with this child.  I did not feel part of any world.  Here I was, in a small village on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, born in Europe in a refugee camp, of parents whose homeland I had never seen, only heard about.  Who was I?  And into this murky whirlpool another rock had recently been tossed.

One day, in the spring of 1956, a few months before I turned ten, my father received a letter from Ukraine.  My parents had been trying to contact their families behind the Iron Curtain ever since they had arrived in Argentina.  It was not as simple as writing to them back home–under the Soviet Union’s demonic leader Stalin, anything seen as anti-Communist was a potential death warrant.  To have family in the West, was tantamount to treason, communication with those abroad was suicide.  It was better to assume they were dead, erase their existence, never to speak of them again. When Nikita Kruschev became the new Soviet leader in 1955, after Stalin’s death, he ushered in an ostensibly less repressive era.  It became barely possible to make contact with families back home.

When the letter from my father’s sister arrived, there was a big commotion.  My parents read the letter together and cried as they found out about the deaths of loved ones.  My mother’s parents had died a few years before without ever finding out what happened to their youngest child–my mother.  Til the end, one of the sisters said, they held to the belief that their Olychka, was alive somewhere.  The last time they had seen her was a few days before the beginning of the war, they knew nothing of her capture and move westward.  My father learned about his brother–slaughtered by the Bolsheviks during a massacre of students at the university. He was only nineteen.

The sadness lingered with us after this news.  But something else in the letter came out in bits and pieces weeks after its arrival.  My parents spoke in hushed tones, my mother appeared distressed, sometimes she cried.

I began to put the pieces together.  It was something about another woman.  Something about a wife left behind.  No, my father kept repeating in a whisper–it’s in the past, there was no love, you are the only one for me. And so I created a new life story for myself.  The other woman, my father’s first wife must have been my mother.  That explained my feelings of not fitting in, it explained the lack of documentation for my birth.  There was no birth certificate for me, my parents said it had been lost.  It explained what I perceived as my mother’s preference for my younger brother.  Of course, he was her legitimate son, I was the adopted child of some strange woman left behind in Ukraine. A dark-haired beauty with thick eyebrows.

On the third night after the child’s birth, Andronati laced wine with a sleeping potion, and passed the drink to all.  He gave some to Mavra as well.  And then, when everyone had drifted into heavy sleep, he placed his drugged daughter and grandchild on a horse, and took them away.

Far from the village stood a lone house behind a neat picket fence, surrounded by flowering trees.  It was the home of a wealthy landowner and his wife–childless for many years.  Andronati placed the infant on the front steps, chanted a few magic words, then  bent down and kissed his grandson on the forehead.  He mounted his horse again and sped away with Mavra.  From the distance he saw a light go on in the house and someone opened the door to the crying child.  On the other side of the mountain, in another village, Andronati left sleeping Mavra in the garden of a widow with a baby girl.  The following morning when he returned, the gypsies took up camp and left.

When I was twelve, I thought it would be nice to share the story with my friends in school.  I began translating the book into Spanish, page by page.  I was probably about one-half of the way done when my life changed again.  In 1959, my parents received notice that their application to emigrate to the U.S.A. had been approved.  This was not pleasant news for me.  I had begun to feel a part of Argentine society, the old feelings of reclusiveness seemed to have ameliorated, I wanted to stay.  But in 1960 my parents sold their house and all their possessions and the four of us–my parents, my brother and I–left Argentina forever to move to the United States.  The translation of the book was forgotten for a long time.

When Mavra woke up groggy in the garden, she knew she had been abandoned.  She wailed for her parents and her child, she tore her hair and scratched her face in anguish.  The widow found her and took her in.  For a time Mavra roamed the village and countryside in search of her band of gypsies, she inquired about an infant boy.  The only information was that the gypsies had taken up camp and disappeared.  No one knew anything about a child.  In time, like a wounded animal, Mavra staggered back to the one person who had been kind to her–the widow.  She settled down and became companion, servant, and a second mother to the widow’s little girl Tatyana.  And watched her grow into a beautiful young girl.

I never felt beautiful growing up.  I was too skinny, my nose was too long, everything was out of sorts.  I dreamed of turning into a swan someday, a femme fatale like Tatyana.

For many years, I forgot about Tatyana, Mavra, and the gypsies.  As I grew up, it became clear that my ideas of not being my mother’s daughter were just a childhood fantasy.  The other woman–my father’s first wife–was childless.

I moved on with life–married, had children, dabbled in writing.  And then one day I found the old book in some forgotten box and read it again.  All my memories came flooding back, and once again, I began to translate.  This time into English.

Mavra’s son, whom the farmers adopted and named Hryz–the Ukrainian nickname for Gregory–and Tatyana were growing up only miles away from each other, separated by a mount Chabanyza.  Mavra had turned all her pent-up love to Tatyana, and the little girl grew up with two mothers.  But when Tatyana was fifteen, Mavra’s begged the widow to allow her to live apart, high on the mountain.

“Go with God,” the widow told her.  “If you wish to live alone I can’t stop you.  Come help me out once in a while, that’s all you need to do.”

Every Sunday, Tatyana took the long walk with a basket of provisions to Mavra’s small hut.  She helped Mavra gather tubers and herbs that would become magic potions to cure ills and turn sadness into joy.  In the winter, as the fire crackled, they broke off stems and crushed dried leaves, placed the different plants into separate sacks.  Tatyana inhaled the mix of strange, powerful scents. She learned the ancient skills of enchantment.

On the other side of Chabanyza, Hryz had grown up too.  He was a wild young man, always clashing with his adoptive parents, always running off on horseback, sometimes for days.  The only calming factor was a lovely neighbor girl, Nastya, and a strange visitor.  Once, when Hryz was a young boy, he had met an old gypsy man and they struck up a friendship.  The gypsy continued to return each year at the time of the boy’s birthday with a gift and stories of his travels.  When Hryz was eighteen, he was betrothed to Nastya and their wedding was set for the following spring.

We all know what is to come—strange coincidences that bring people together—more likely to happen in reality than fiction.  One Sunday Hryz rode his horse through the forest on Chabanyza, when suddenly dark-haired Tatyana walked into his path.  He fell under her spell.  And she fell in love with him too; heart and soul.  Again and again they met in the forest, and loved each other.  They were two fire creatures and they loved as hard as they fought, their passion bordered on cruelty. Hryz was in love with Tatyana but his betrothal to Nastya weighed heavy on his heart.  She was the kindest person he had ever met, she loved him completely, she was docile as a lamb.  In the end, he did what he felt was right–he told Tatyana he had to let her go.  He said their love was doomed; the curse of many would fall on them if he reneged on his promise to Nastya.  Hryz mounted his horse and galloped into the forest.  Tatyana turned and ran to Mavra’s hut in the woods.

I also loved as powerfully as Tatyana and believed words of love.  Like Tatyana, I was betrayed.  A betrayal by someone you love is a kind of death.  It is the death of the present, the future, but worst of all it’s a death of your past.  Because all that you have experienced, all the joys you may have had, are negated by the betrayal.  You cannot even trust your memory.

“Oh, Mavra, I will die without him!” Tatyana cried.

She had wrapped herself around Mavra’s knees, sobbing desperately.

Mavra wept too watching the pain of the girl she loved.

“Don’t say that, you’re strong and beautiful.  There will be another who will love you true.”

“No,” Tatyana screamed.  “I don’t want another.  Hryz is the only one for me.”

“Your fate is sealed, my child,” Mavra whispered, “there will be no happiness with Hryz for you.”

“Please help me Mavra,” Tatyana moaned.

“I will try my dearest, I will try,” said the gypsy.  She pulled Tatyana up to her and wiped the girl’s tears.

“There is an herb,” she began in a soothing voice.  “There’s an herb that grows under the white stone.  It can bring back what was before.”

“Can it make him love me again?”

“Perhaps, my dearest.  We can try,” Mavra said.  “But we must be oh, so careful.  This herb is a powerful plant.  Just enough must be given, never too much.  Even a horse can die from ingesting too much.”

It was Sunday, a few weeks before the wedding.  Late in the night, Mavra and Tatyana went into the forest.  They pushed the white stone aside and pulled the herb that grew beneath it by its roots.  They laid it out to dry in the sun, ground the leaves and roots, added water from the spring and made a potion.  On Wednesday before the wedding Tatyana went to see Hryz with two glasses to make a toast.

“Here,” she said, pouring wine into both glasses.  “I come with forgiveness and wishes for happiness in your new life.”

Hryz took the glass and they made a toast.  And then he drank.

When Thursday came he was found dead,

Laid on Friday into his earthly bed

Saturday everyone discovered the sin,

Oh sweet child why did you poison him?

And so I shall I tell you–he had no pity on me

He said I was his lover but another one loved he.

I will not let her have him if he cannot be mine,

Cold earth alone will hold him till the end of time.

Andronati had come for the wedding, but instead of celebrating, he saw  his grandson laid to rest.  Mavra and her father were reunited on that fateful day and she then found out she had killed her own son.  The curse of long ago had come to pass–God will punish, if not now, then later.  Nothing she could have done would have saved her from her fate.

But there is another version.

In this one, I am Tatyana, crazed by the betrayal.  Madness takes over, and in my vision of the world, my lover cannot be with another.  My love makes a leap and in a flash turns to hate.

I read about lethal plants and learn how to extract their poison.  But it is winter and all the plants are asleep like one enchanted beneath the snow.  Then spring arrives and the narcissus blooms in every garden.  I pull one out by the roots, grind it with mortar and pestle, and create a deadly paste.  Then some Sunday morning, when I know he is away, I will let myself into his house.  There is an open bottle on his nightstand.  I pull apart one of the large capsules–horse pills–he liked to call them.  I empty the contents into the sink, spread the narcissus paste inside the empty vial, and put it back in the bottle.  I do it quickly, efficiently, with vinyl gloves to leave no trace.  And then I leave, and wait.

There you are my lover; this is what I’ve done

For this, I shall be punished and will live alone.

But for you my lover, here is your reward

Your eternal dwelling–each side a wooden board.

In this alternate universe’s version, the poison fails.  My lover does not die.

And all I am left with is the futility of vengeance gone awry.