Onyska was an elderly woman 90 years of age who had arthritic fingers, humped back, four tufted hens, and a small dog Hryshka. Who, if measured in dog years, was probably older than Onyska herself. This one was a limp, he favored his front left paw and barked only on those rare occasions when one of the hens had a cheek to start pecking food placed in his bowl.
Onyska’s little cottage stood on a hillock, apart from other peasants’ dwellings. Her father was a “man of property”, which meant he despised the collective nature of a kolhosp, and so his living separately was a way to distance himself from the “goddamn communists” who had starved to death his entire family in distant 1933. Onyska, who was born the very same horrible year of starvation, survived all the other nine children. The adults died too—her grandfather and grandmother, and also her mom. Father buried them one by one in sour cherry bushes behind the cottage— first his parents, then children, and finally, his wife. Growing up, Onyska enjoyed playing in those bushes, among mounds of earth. She wasn’t the least troubled by the burial mounds—after all, it was her family who was laid to rest there, even though she had never actually met them. Onyska’s greatest fear was that Father may join them too, her only parent whom she loved wholeheartedly.
Father was taciturn, stingy with parental love but dotted over Onyska like a miser over his last ducat, the kind who wouldn’t part with his treasure even if his life depended on it. He would never let her outside their yard alone and to all her complaining, pleading, and crying had but one answer: ‘Tis better never to have had than to have had and seen it dead (1). And that saying was all Onyska heard throughout her childhood; while she yearned for the company at first, a certain further misfortune, with her falling down from a pear tree, resulting in her developing a humpback, turned her away from them completely. That was probably why, despite her pretty face, no one ever offered to lead her down the aisle. But that didn’t make her sad, just as she didn’t regret not having children because it was “better never to have had than to have had and seen it dead”. After her father passed away, Onyska lived in solitude, toiling her days away from morning till dusk, splitting the time between the kolhosp and her small household.
Despite her reserved nature, the village folks adored Onyska. Although reticent and shy, she somehow always was the first to show up wherever help was needed. Many a young wife would seek Onyska’s sympathetic ear about her griefs and misfortunes, knowing perfectly well that she would never spill any of it to the local gossipers. Also, Onyska had good knowledge of medicinal herbs, and so the moment anyone found themselves out of aspirin or analgin (metamizole), they went to get some dried willow bark or other potions from her. Father told Onyska that she “inherited these abilities from grandma Hrusha, that is from your mother’s mother, who as a sybil knew her way around roots and herbs. Meaning, you got it in your blood. And you, Onyska, even look the spittin’ image of her, and you eat meals all peculiar-like, just like she did.” Onyska, never having seen “her mother’s mother” and having learned about herbal medicine from books, and knowing she ate her meals not that differently from others, didn’t argue. In her blood or not in her blood, what was the difference? If she had one good reason to doubt her parent’s words, it was the legends village people told of her pugnacious grandmother Hrusha. To this day, any village drunkard was traditionally scolded with the words: If only there was grandma Hrusha to come get you! The story had it that this woman, now quite far in her senior years, used a pan once to wallop her drunk neighbor who beat his wife and children mercilessly. The hit landed so hard that the delinquent was bedridden for a couple days, unconscious, and after that, pledged never again to lay a finger on anyone. Yet Onyska was the exact opposite of her grandmother. She actually chose to chase off flies from her house because she couldn’t bring herself to swat them; as for the kinship, she could only follow the example of her father, a quiet man completely crushed by his grievous fate.
For as long as she was able to, Onyska had been taking care of a cow and a bee-garden, and when her strengths completely declined, she gave all that property away to villagers. She was living her last years alone. Never complained nor sought others’ sympathy. She would secretly scribble poems in an old notebook—never meant to be seen, would talk about life to Hryshka, say her prayers and welcome each new sunrise at her doorstep, knowing she didn’t have many of those left before the coming of eternal darkness. Onyska wasn’t afraid of death because she believed this: there, beyond the firmament, she would finally meet all the family Father had been telling her about—the people she had never had and yet who, somehow, meant something to her, even being dead.
It was in the morning just like this, her standing on her doorstep, waiting for God’s day to brighten up, when she noticed two men halting by her gate.
“Babushka, khlieba niet u tiebya? (2)” one of the men addressed her in Russian.
“I have some, of course”, she answered.
“Sell it I would not. But if you’re hungry, I’ll cut a good slice for each of you. The store won’t be opening for another couple hours, you know.”
Onyska went back inside, locked the bolt, naturally having misgivings about strangers. She cut two generous slices off the loaf, spread some lard over each one. She opened the window and looked out, saying:
“Here you go. Only come quicker, I don’t want my room to get chilly.”
The men came closer, and it was only then that Onyska’s old weak eyes spotted those were young boys in military uniforms, both very muddy and exhausted.
“You soldiers, then? Did you get lost?” she asked sympathetically.
“Okh, babka”, one soldier told her over a mouthful of bread, “Znala b ty, kak my otbilis’ (4).”
“You must be freezing, yes? Come, come, I don’t have any milk, but I do have tea, for sure.”
Onyska rushed to put on the kettle and cut some more bread, realizing belatedly that she hadn’t yet opened the door.
“Come in, but please, take your shoes off, I’m an old bone, I am too weak to wipe the floor afterwards, you see, but your boots are all muddy. Sit down over here, by the stove. Gas is expensive, the stove’s old, so I burn wood for heating. Stay, keep warm. I’ll get some water heated too, so you can wash, face and hands, at least.”
While Onyska was keeping busy in her slow way, the soldiers talked quietly, warming up by the stove. At first, the old woman wasn’t listening in, but then she suddenly caught a bit:
“Khot’ odna babka normalnaya popalas’, a to vsie etyi khokhly eban*tye, kak s uma soshli, natsyki (5).”
Following this was a stream of such obscenities that Onyska’s cheeks flushed red as poppies. At this point, she strongly suspected that something was off. She hadn’t turned on the TV since the day they showed the last episode of Kriposna (6); her antiquated soviet-era radio lost voice about a month ago. The only newspaper she subscribed to was the Life, and even so, for some reason, last week’s issue hadn’t made it to her house. She knew, of course, that a war could possibly break out, it was just she didn’t believe it much, despite her “inborn” and most unsurprising dislike of moskals. So, she shuffled her way to the living room, perched reading glasses on her nose and closely inspected the uniforms. That was it: the flag wasn’t Ukrainian.
She felt paralyzing fear grip her legs. Barely walking, she moved closer to the stove where she had put some buckwheat porridge on a frying pan, meaning to heat it up for the soldiers.
To think I mistook them for my countrymen! Dear God, what am I to do?! Should’ve taken your blood pressure pill earlier, dear, here’s where stroke’ll find you.
She glanced over her shoulder at the guests. They didn’t seem to be up to any mischief for now, and one of them was even nodding off, in a spell of overwhelming drowsiness.
“Here, boys. Here, have some porridge.”
On the verge of fainting, her hands trembling, she picked up the frying pan and brought it to the table—and there, in a sudden inspiration and surge of strength, she whacked the soldier nearest to her on the head, once and twice, and then came for the other, drowsy one. Both dropped to the floor, unconscious, followed by the clank of the old cast-iron frying pan.
“Sweet Mary, hope I didn’t kill them”, she lowered herself on the bench, feeling drained, “Hryshka, you old scoundrel, won’t you bark for once, why do I even keep feeding you.”
The veteran dog finally pricked his ears to such an address, rose slowly and waddled his way to his owneress. He came closer, licked her trembling hand, then approached the guests laying asprawl, and lifting his hind leg, marked the territory, after which dragged his legs back to his corner. He had yet to let out a single bark. Onyska, seeing Hryshka’s heroic deed, felt encouraged and went to untie the rope that held a few bundles of dried herbs and roots. She then used the rope to bind the intruders’ legs and arms before they had a chance to come to their senses.
“Stay guard, you fleabag!” she chided Hryshka good-naturedly. She went out and locked the door. Onyska stayed on the bench outside for a long time, calming down and getting properly cold, until there was some audible movement in the house. Then she got to her feet and started shuffling her way to the village center.
It was when the men had taken away the captives and the medical attendant woman had given her a jab of sedative that a sudden thought occurred to Onyska who was drifting off: Perhaps, it is in my blood, after all. Must’ve got it from grandma Hrusha.
March 4, 10:54 p.m.
The original saying was much less of a reference to Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem In Memoriam. However, the translator sees it fit that a Ukrainian peasant should perceive the origin of sorrow inverted like this, through the lens of their relentless destitution.
Grandma, do you have any bread?
Would you sell it?
Oh, granny. If only you knew how we got lost.
I’ll be damned, one proper old woman among all those crazy khokhols, they’re all f*cked up in their heads, bloody nazis.
Ukrainian soap opera TV-series, literally “Serf Woman”, dubbed in English as “Love in Chains”
Ukrainian Text by Oksana Petrivska. Translated into English by Ukrainianvancouver team – Mar 10, 2022