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Kulykiv/Kulików, Poland • May 12, 1945
I slipped out through the kitchen into the dark of the yard after Papa’s toast.
Mama was holding two-week-old Mykola for me, and she was the only one who saw me go. She didn’t try to stop me. I could imagine what she thought. The last time I heard Papa make a wedding toast in this house, not quite three years ago, it was mine. But God knew I didn’t begrudge Maria and Kostya this happiness. God knew it was our own little victory — to see Maria Kamińska and Kostya Lasko sharing the bread and salt, to hear the wedding blessings spoken over them in both Polish and Ukrainian. God knew it meant far more to us than the announcement that came over the wireless on Tuesday, of Allied victory in Europe. God knew there was no victory in Europe for us.
I didn’t begrudge Maria and Kostya this. I didn’t miss Aleks any more on this particular night than I missed him every night. I had learned to live with a part of me cut out and buried alongside him under that alder tree on the riverbank in the wood above Yavoriv. I didn’t begrudge them any of this. But I didn’t know how to be happy for them. It felt like a betrayal to be happy. It felt like a sin — to permit ourselves anything other than grief. All I could see, when I looked around the room, were the dead and missing who should have been here — not only Aleks, but Mykola, our little Mykola’s namesake; and Adrian Kijek; and gentle, quiet Andriy. I knew better than to hope that Maks, my little brother Maksym, was still alive after almost a year and a half and no word; the Germans had taken him in one of their roundups of slave laborers the autumn before last. Mama and Papa had offered the bread and salt tonight because neither Maria’s parents nor Kostya’s were here to do it.
It was nearly midnight now, and the yard was cool and silent. I sat on the kitchen step and took off my kerchief and ochipok. My head was aching. Out here, it felt suddenly like another sin to dwell upon my grief. Our family was, of course, one of the very lucky ones — lucky to have good connections; lucky that we had not lost our farm in nearly six years of war; lucky that we had lost only one of six children, after all. Even in comparison just to the rest of Kulykiv, our family had come through relatively unscathed. Seven of our eight were here, alive and well. My son was here — Aleks’s son. We had our house; we had our barn; we had the August harvest rising in our fields. So many others had lost so much more.
It felt like a sin to be happy; it felt like a sin to grieve. How were you supposed to live like this?
“I thought it was a sin,” Kyrylo said, “letting a man see you with your hair uncovered. I thought that meant you were a loose woman.”
He was sitting just below me — on the ground in the shadow of the step, his head and shoulders against the kitchen wall. I hadn’t seen him in the dark. He tipped his face up toward me now, and the little bit of light coming out from under the kitchen door caught the lean, sharp line of his jaw.
“You would know,” I said — and then wished I could take it back. I was making joke, a stupid joke, as he had been making a joke, but I was afraid that I had prodded a still-raw wound. I knew very little about Inna, the woman whose bed he had shared in L’viv. But I knew he had loved her, and I knew she was the one who had given him to the NKVD last August.
But he said lightly, “If you want to sit on top of me uninvited, you have to bring me another bottle.”
“Are you drunk?”
“Not yet. Are you?”
“That’s why you should have brought another bottle,” he said.
Then he said softly, “You need to leave, Anna. All of you. Soon. I don’t mean leave this house. I don’t mean leave Kulykiv. I mean leave Poland.”
The faint strains of the old wedding song whispered into the silence of the yard around us: Sto lat, sto lat niech żyje . . .
“I know,” I said.
We sat there in silence, listening. One hundred years — may you live one hundred years! I knew he was right. We had been some of the lucky ones, but that wouldn’t last. Sooner or later, the NKVD would learn that I had been married to Aleks, a UPA officer; or they would learn that I had acted as liaison between Aleks and Renata Kijek’s Resistance cell; or they would learn that Ivan and Borys, the oldest of my brothers, were members of that cell. The promised amnesties from the Soviet authorities had all been lies. People like us were being deported to labor camps or shot in prison basements or hanged as public examples. Sooner or later, our luck would run out.
“Tomek’s already been ordered back to England,” Kyrylo said.
“Will he go?”
“He’ll go. He knows Maria won’t unless he does.” Kyrylo patted at the breast of his coat, digging for a cigarette and his lighter. His hands trembled. They always trembled now, though he took care to hide it. The NKVD had tortured him for three weeks last August in the basement of their headquarters in L’viv. Tomek, who had been there with him, forced to watch, told us how they had put his hands on a doorjamb one after the other and slammed the door shut on his fingers, repeatedly, until the bones shattered like matchsticks. Tomek’s squad medic had put the bones back together as best he could, but the nerve damage was permanent. Kyrylo’s hands would always tremble like this. He would never have feeling in them again.
I said, “We’ll have to find a buyer for the farm. It will take time.”
Kyrylo let out a low, scoffing hiss of a breath. “Better go ahead and alert the NKVD that you’re thinking about leaving, too. Anna — you can’t wait to sell the farm. They’re making lists. Somebody will tell them they knew Anna Kobryn back when she was a UPA nurse.”
“It’s different for us,” I said carefully. “It’s harder for us than it is for you or for Tomek — to leave. It will take us more time.”
I had to remind myself sometimes that Kyrylo, though he didn’t necessarily dress or act it, had a good deal of money. He had never had to think twice about train fares and ships’ passages, or housing, or the fees that I was sure were associated with applying for residency in a different country; he had never had to think twice about the cost of bribing unfriendly guards at checkpoints and borders. He had certainly never had to think about these things for eight people — eight, because I refused to leave Maks out of my calculations.
He would give us the money if I asked. That was one more thing I knew about his relationship with Inna, only because he had asked Ivan to run this errand for him once, and Ivan told me: He still paid the rent and the gas for Inna’s flat in L’viv each month.
Kyrylo slipped a cigarette between his lips and drew his thumb very carefully over the wheel of his lighter. He couldn’t get the flame to catch. He fumbled at it for a few seconds, hand shaking. He caught me watching.
“Still practicing,” he said.
I took the lighter and flicked the wheel for him, and he leaned over my hand so I could light the cigarette for him, cupping the flame with his own hand. He had always been so independent, so capable, so coldly efficient about everything, that it made my heart clench to watch him dip his head meekly to my hand and let me do it for him.
He made a brave attempt to brush it off.
“They wanted me to smoke less — the NKVD,” he said. “They were very concerned about my health.”
“You should smoke less.”
“They could have just said that,” he said, steadying himself by holding on to my wrist lightly with his ruined fingers while he took a drag, “instead of, you know…”
It was so much like something Aleks would have said — so much the sort of stupid joke he would make, making light of something that shouldn’t be made light of. They had been good friends. Kyrylo exhaled a soft breath of smoke and lifted his head from my hand, though he didn’t let go of my wrist. I wondered whether he had forgotten he was holding it, not being able to feel it.
“Did you know I’ve got land in Canada?” he said. “My uncle’s, technically. He doesn’t use it. He’s got a place in Toronto. He’s been trying to hand it off to me since I was sixteen — the land.”
I took his fingers from my wrist very gently and dropped his lighter into his breast pocket. He had land in Canada. Tomek had a British officer’s commission. Renata Kijek had British citizenship and her mother’s kin in Norfolk. How could he not understand how much more difficult it would be for us, farmers from Kulykiv, to leave Poland?
“When do you leave?” I asked.
He gave me an odd look.
“No — it’s yours,” he said.
I froze, my head bent very close to his.
“I meant it’s yours — the land,” he said. “Your family’s. I don’t have any more use for it than my uncle does. I’ll have him draw up the papers.”
I straightened up very slowly. “Kyrylo.”
“You need it, don’t you? And I don’t, so — ”
“Kyrylo,” I said, “you’re the one who needs to leave the country now. You’re the one with a price on your head.” Commander Shukhevych, leader of the UPA, had put out the order for Kyrylo’s death himself. Kyrylo had spent these last nine months in hiding with Tomek’s Resistance squad.
He pulled a drag on his cigarette, eyes narrowed — the look he got when he was preparing a defense in his head. He had spent two years in law school under Adrian Kijek at the university in L’viv, and he still had something of a lawyer about him. He had a frighteningly methodical mind — even when he was slightly drunk, as I suspected he was now.
“The Poles sent me to Bereza Kartuska when I was sixteen,” he said. “Hell on earth. Six weeks in the hospital learning to eat solid food again when I got out. I had my chance to leave Poland then. I already knew I had put too much blood into this ground to leave.” He took out his cigarette and smiled at me — a ghost of a smile, brushing his lips just briefly. “I’m going to die here, Anna. I always knew that. If it wasn’t going to be in a Polish prison, it was going to be in a Russian one. I always knew that.”
“You’ve put too much blood in this ground,” I breathed. “I put my husband in this ground.”
“I know,” he said softly, “I know. But you’ve got Mykola. You’ve got a chance for another life — you two. You’ve got a future after the war. This is all I’ve got.”
I said, “If that’s what you think, then you’re an idiot.”
He was silent, considering me as you would consider the position of your queen on a chess board. Then he stubbed out his cigarette, tipped his face up, and kissed me.
And I must have been slightly drunk too, because I let him do it.
I held his face between my hands, and I let him pull me down against him, and I let him slip his arms around my waist, and I let him whisper my name against the corner of my mouth, and I let him open my lips very gently with his tongue —
And then I couldn’t, I couldn’t, I couldn’t.
His voice was wrong, his mouth was wrong, his taste was wrong, and Aleks was dead, and I had betrayed him, and I was going to be sick.
“Wait,” I gasped, throat tight with panic, “wait, Kyrylo — ”
He tore his mouth from mine and ducked his head sharply away, breathing rough and hard, as if I had slapped him across the face.
“Layno,” he choked out, “layno. I’m sorry. I thought — ”
I shook my head. I couldn’t speak. I swallowed the lurch of bile back down. I stroked his brow and his close-cut hair with my fingertips; I touched my lips to his forehead. Then I buried my face in his shoulder and spent a moment breathing him in — breathing in the comforting, steadying smells of smoke and sweat and vodka and sweet hay. There were hot tears on my cheeks; there was a sob knotted at the base of my throat.
“Why did I have to lose him?” I whispered into the soft old wool of his coat. I had never dared ask this question of anyone, even of God. I had never dared voice my grief, my pain, my anger at the unfairness of it — not when I knew poor Tolya blamed himself and thought I did too. Not when I knew we were the lucky ones. “Why did I have to lose him?”
“I’m sorry,” Kyrylo said, his voice low and bitter. “Anna, I’m sorry.”
He lifted me abruptly from his lap and got to his feet and limped off into the dark without another word. He would always have that limp too; they had broken his ankles when they broke his hands.
There was a note on a scrap of newspaper pushed under my door the next morning — Law office of Viktor Romaniuk, Islington, Toronto, Ontario — and enough in bank notes, both rubles and British pounds, to make my breath catch.
He was gone. I didn’t know where. He had left without a word to anybody. I wondered whether I would have let him keep kissing me after all, if I had known that was goodbye.
A month and a half later, the twenty-second of June, he slipped in through my window in the middle of the night.
It was pitch dark, and Aleks had always done the same thing — I had always left the window unlatched for him even in winter — and just for a moment I thought it was him. I was unafraid because I thought it was him. I sat straight up in my bed, heart pounding with wild hope, and whispered into the dark, “Aleks.”
He said, after a pause, “No, it’s Kyrylo.”
And then I was awake, and I snatched up the bedclothes around myself; I was sleeping in nothing but my slip because it was so hot. Mykola stirred in his crib. “What on earth are you doing?” I hissed. “Why on earth did you climb all the way up here? Why didn’t you knock?”
“I did knock. I’ve been knocking for ten damn minutes. Why didn’t you answer?”
“The boys must be out on an action.” Ivan and Borys were the only ones who slept on the ground floor of the house; they were the only ones likely to hear somebody at the door.
“Anna, listen to me,” he said, “listen to me — they were arrested. Ivan and Borys. They were arrested tonight.”
“They’re all right now. They’re safe.”
I struck a match in the dark to light the oil lamp on my bedtable — and nearly dropped the lit match onto the bedclothes.
He was wearing an NKVD officer’s uniform — complete to the boots and the red-banded cap. There was blood on his hands, on his sleeves, on the front of his jacket.
“Anna,” he said softly, “Anna, listen to me. Let me explain.”
I lit the lamp very carefully. My hands were shaking. “Explain.”
“I went to them two months ago. I told them I wanted to turn. I told them I would give them everything I could give them on the UPA in L’viv. They were looking for deserters to recruit, and I have that bounty on my head — all the recommendation I needed. And Tomek wanted somebody on the inside. I wasn’t doing him any good in the field. I can’t hold a damn handgun. I said I would do it. You can ask Tomek. You can ask London.” His voice was low and urgent. “Please, Anna. Believe me — I’m not one of them. You know I’m not one of them.”
I drew a breath. I said, “Are you hurt?”
He glanced at his blood-slicked hands distractedly. “It’s not mine.”
“It was a trap — the action. One of the others sold them out. The whole squad. Lena, Jerzy. Your brothers. The others had fake identification papers, Soviet passports, cover names — ”
“So did Ivan and Borys. They had fakes. No one knew their names.”
“I’m not the only local turncoat working at NKVD headquarters. They were recognized, Anna. One of the interrogators knew they were Kostyshyns — knew they were from Kulykiv.”
“Where are they?”
“They’re safe. They’re all safe. They’re with Renata. I took them to Renata — to the flat in the city. You need to go too — all of you, now. Right now. We need to get everybody up right now.” He let out a shivery breath — a sudden burst of stress and frustration. “Blyat, Anna — I thought you’d be gone a month ago. I told you to go.”
“Mama and Papa won’t,” I said.
“Mama and Papa won’t leave without Maks — without some news, at least.”
He stared at me in the lamplight. I thought he would say aloud what we both knew. Maks is dead, Anna. He was ten years old and small for his age. He wouldn’t have lasted a month in a German labor camp, let alone a year and a half. If he were alive, he would have come home by now.
But he didn’t say any of that.
He said, “There are agencies, there are organizations — we can write to the refugee camps, we can write to the Red Cross — ”
“I’ve been writing. I’ve been doing everything. Kyrylo, you don’t understand. You’ve never lost a child. You’ve never lost — ”
Anyone, I started to say, but I caught myself just in time. His parents, both of them, had died in Polish prisons. He had spent most of his childhood in a Polish orphanage. How could I have forgotten?
“We’ll go to Germany,” he said. “We’ll look for him ourselves. But blyat, Anna, you need to leave. Tonight.” He took the oil lamp from the bedtable. “Whatever you need — whatever you want — get it now. Get out of the house.”
“What are you doing?”
“Following my orders,” he said. “Making an example of you.”
I think he would have just set the fire and left it; I think he was worried about it looking too obviously staged. Mama was the one who said there needed to be traces. If we were to have died in this fire, she said — if we were to convince the NKVD that we had died in this fire — there needed to be traces.
She took off her wedding ring and threw it into the flames. There were tears in her eyes, but there was a hard, stubborn set to her jaw. I knew that look very well. Aleks always told me I had exactly the same look when I was being stubborn about something.
We had come so very close to losing Ivan and Borys tonight. What was a house? What was a ring? What good did it do to cling to the past? Maks and Aleks were dead and gone. We were alive.
I put my ring in the flames too.
We were alive, the nine of us. We would be safe soon. Renata was bringing the boys with her from L’viv. We wouldn’t even have to worry about train fares and ships’ passages. Kyrylo said Tomek, already in England with Maria and Kostya and Tolya, could pull strings and send a flight for us. We just had to drive to the airstrip at Ryashiv.
He was asleep beside me in the back seat of the car — Kyrylo. Or I thought he was asleep. When I leaned my head on his shoulder, exhausted, heartsick, temples aching with tears and smoke, he lifted his arm and put it around me very gently.
And I let him do it.
Photo credits: Pexels/Rachel Claire, Pexels/Nataliya Vaitkevich, Pexels/Nati, Pexels/Cottonbro, Unsplash/Stephen Radford, Unsplash/Weronika Romanowska, Unsplash/Viktor Bystrov, Unsplash/Jusdevoyage, Unsplash/El Mehdi Rezkellah