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You should have had a sister—say four, no, five years younger. Disembodied female names circled above your entire childhood, switching places with each other, calling out to each other—you didn’t know how to connect them, and you didn’t dare give them to your dolls: they were not dolls’ names, not borrowed from living people, but rather from somewhere beyond. It was as if someone was trying to reach you through the moan of a name that bobbed up, unbeckoned, settled into your inner ear for a long, long time (all these names moaned, the one repeated most often was Ivánna)—someone wanted to be named. In second grade you had to transfer to a new school, and that was the first time you thought of a change of place as liberation, as breaking into a sphere where you could correct your own biography into that which should have been: you told your new classmates that you had a little sister, Ivánka, who didn’t go to school yet, and thus inadvertently did what your parents lacked the courage to do: you summoned to life a girl’s fair-haired head of fluffy curls lit up by sunshine. Later they would have inevitably turned darker, just as yours had. But your little lie was discovered, and once your daily verbal singing-brook dried up, its small current being the only place where Ivánka could move (you’d tell your desk mate in the morning, yawning wearily, “Ivánka was so cranky yesterday, wouldn’t fall asleep—we stayed up playing until ten”)—the fair-haired head of fluffy curls was also extinguished, forever falling out of that dimension where people grow and change.
      Thus she was killed for the second time.
      Because in fact you did have a sister. She had gills and a curled-up short tail instead of feet—like a small crayfish or a seahorse. A tadpole of a girl with a broad forehead like everyone else in your family. Her eyes, probably, had not opened yet, because actually, there wasn’t anything to look at: it was dark all around her. And moist. And warm. Her cells wanted one thing: to divide, unstoppably and constantly—inside, where she was, it must feel the way it does when your body is racked by involuntary shivers, yet without that panic of weakness that generally besets us at such times, because we have already learned that the body must be obedient. But in there, when the soul is only beginning to grow a body, the persistent tremor of quickly multiplying cells must feel like an incessant, quivering joy of arrival, of being carried, swiftly and assuredly, through a dark tunnel toward the light. And that’s why you could not shake the idea of fear—the first and last fear felt by your sister in this world, of whom there remained, like clothes on the shore left by someone who drowned, only the distant echo of a name (Ivánna, or perhaps another -anna) and an uncertain visage of a four-year-old girl’s fair fluffy curls lit up by the sun, of the fear that came from the outside, that tossed and tumbled that entire whale in which she blissfully rocked like a tiny Jonah—a terrifying push, a noiseless infrasound of a sliding avalanche, and the surrounding darkness suddenly no longer a bubbly refuge, but pumping danger with such deadly intensity that the girl-tadpole thrashed in panic and would have screamed, but she had no lungs yet for screaming, was only the thin petal of endoderm that vibrated wildly, in vain—it was too soon, too soon!—while all around fear persisted, pure fear, formless and omnipotent; she thrashed about in its very nexus, blindly poking in all directions looking for a safe haven, because she still had to build up her tiny body, her frail arms, her skinny limp legs with tiny curled-out feet, like a frog’s. Behind that fear something else was swiftly raising itself, something like a large lid designed for pressing down on a quashed tiny hot lump that didn’t even have a voice yet, nor any way of giving a sign down that tunnel to let them know she was there—I’m here already, right over here, just let me build up my body a bit more! . . . You, of course, knew nothing about such things then; you were five and must have been swaddling your doll in the living room on the couch, when you suddenly heard muted choked noises from the kitchen, where your parents sat talking after dinner, barking noises—noises made with a woman’s voice you did not recognize, because how could you know back then that a woman’s voice could produce them?—and a second later your mother’s cry sliced the air; yes, it was Mother’s, but what a different, sinister, inner deep-well cry—it would be branded into your memory for the rest of your life:
       “Bastards! Animals! Damn them!”
      Whispers, Father’s hushed persuading voice—like shuffling on an audiotape. You burst into the kitchen, and the sight (close up!) hit you between the eyes—your mother’s wet, red face, strands of hair plastered onto her forehead, and that was all that was bestowed on you from that episode: your role of an observer, a helpless witness that stands to the side with her hands occupied by a doll, or a stack of books.
      The books—there was another distinct memory, from before that night—you couldn’t remember how much earlier—when men you did not know filled your apartment without taking off their coats, which instantly made the space feel cramped, and, with their backs to your parents, began digging through the bookcases and Daddy’s desk while Mom and Dad sat on the couch and said nothing, only whispering to each other from time to time. After some time (one hour, two? three?) you got bored sitting around like that and snuck away to your corner to fill your lap with books, Ukrainian Folk Riddles on top, in hardback with a dreamy little boy on the blue cover. You asked if you could be excused to go—at least on the balcony if you were not allowed outside—which was a rather rational thing to do for a five-year-old; you did seem to be about the only person in that one-act play to behave rationally, because, for example, your dad, whom they intercepted at the entrance to the building as he was returning from the institute, so he was the one to ring the doorbell and it ended up looking like he was the one who brought the men with him, when his wife opened the door, could only muster, completely shocked, “Natalia, look who joined me . . . ,” as if indeed these were guests dropping by for a cup of tea, and it’s not even hard to imagine how your mother, who was younger than you are now, your slender and warm mom, who always smelled nice, could, letting the man into the hallway, stutter out in reply, “Nice to meet you.” And it was only then that they presented their IDs. (When many years later, in another building, they stopped you just like that, in the hallway, you, without skipping a beat, as if you’d been waiting for them these twenty years, demanded to see their identity papers, although, if you really think about it, what the hell did you need them for?—but, perhaps, the whole point was that back then, when you were five years old, nobody identified themselves to you, nobody said, “Darka, please meet Mr. So-and-So,” nobody felt any need to explain anything to you, to make those men face you and explain who they were. In fact, the faces they have are those stiff folding ID cards with fine print on the left flap, which you wouldn’t have had time to read anyway because as soon as they open it, they instantly make that all-powerful piece of cardboard disappear again, smooth as magicians, as you were able to ascertain for yourself twenty years later.) At first it was only their backs, grey-coated backs without the slightest interest in your existence, but in the presence of which it was nonetheless forbidden to leave the apartment or move around it as you wished—even tiptoeing to the toilet occurred under their supervision—and only once did something almost like a face shoot out of that grey blockading density at you, and it didn’t really look at you because its eyelids were lowered—and that was exactly when you were standing there with your armful of books, topped by the Ukrainian Folk Riddles in hardcover with the drawing of the little blue boy lost in thought, with a finger on his forehead, and you asked your mother if you could at least go out to the balcony if you weren’t allowed to go outside; that’s when this almost-a-face said in Russian, “Let’s have a look at your books, dyevochka,” in a voice that also didn’t really have room for you, contained no indication, in fact, that it was addressing you. And you were not dyevochka, your name was Darka, so you stood there, surprised, on the caramel-colored parquet floor still sticky from the varnish (renovations just finished!) with your armful of books, staring, chin up at that almost-a-face, until your mom, your slender and warm mom, who always smelled so nice and who had been quietly rocking your baby sister inside her for three months already, wrapped her arms around you, made a violet-scented woolen cocoon of her sweater sleeves around you as if trying to absorb you back inside of her, where in fact there was no more room for you, and said, with a gentle breath into your ear, “Why don’t you go show that nice man what you’ve been reading.” Yes, why don’t you go and tell him all about it, or maybe even stand up tall there and recite a little poem for the guests, why don’t you—your mother’s instinct gave her the perfect strategy to domesticate the nice man, translate him into a familiar language, like that monster mutt who once chased you in a park and you got so scared, and ran, and cried, and tripped, falling to the sound of your own screams into the grass, while Mother, who had already calmed the dog down, laughed and brought him over to you: Look, silly, the doggy just wanted to play with you—the dog stood by, looking guilty—Don’t be afraid, he’s not scary at all, why don’t we go up and pet him. The strange thing was, this seemed to work on the KGB guy as well as it did on you, because when he returned the books to you after rummaging through them for a few minutes (squeezing the covers and spines carefully to see whether anything was hidden there), he braved playing along in the role so casually foisted upon him by this pale, deathly frightened woman, handed the books back to you as if he really were a nice man, awkwardly, like someone who had never had anything to do with children, and said, “Here you go, dyevochka . . . you got some nice books there.” The books were all shuffled into a different order, and you confidently pulled the blue dreamy boy to the top once again; however, something was no longer quite right—something sweet and pleasing, the books’ promise, had been extruded, removed, and you did not feel like taking them out on the balcony anymore. You held them in your arms, and this became your most precise, your only unequivocally clear memory of that September day: you are standing there, and your hands are occupied with your books.
      It was perhaps at that very moment, when she rushed to take you into her arms, to embrace and shield you with her whole body, that a realization flashed through your mother’s mind, an obscure, alarming truth: she would not be able to shield the both of you. She had no room for two. Thus you, by virtue of your fully realized, irrevocable presence in this world, edged your sister out of it. Because how else to explain that it was you your sister kept calling out for, for several years afterward, with that distant hum of a name you could never make out, and it was only to you she manifested in the vision of a light-haired head, turned so the sun lit up its soft curls? You were sitting with your feet up on the couch reading a fairy tale in which the traveling salt traders made a flute from a guelder rose branch, stopped at the house at the edge of the village, and when the farmer’s daughter raised the flute to her lips, the flute began to speak: Gently, gently, my sister, play, do not stab my heart today; it was you, sister, who drove us apart, plunged a knife into my heart . . . You don’t have to plunge a knife into someone’s heart to end them—simply having already been born is enough. You found out that you had a sister much, much later, when you were twelve or thirteen—your mom told you, and your parents had a fight about it because your father thought that children shouldn’t be told about such things: like with all men, he could only be convinced of a child’s existence at the moment he could hold the baby in his arms and lower her into a warm bath, so it’s possible that your mother was unconsciously looking for an ally in you, a girl about to become a woman; however, she did not know about the visions of the little curly-haired head that no longer returned to visit you, about the onslaught of indistinct, moaned names that would make you mutter them under your breath for days at a time—but there were things you did not know either. You had no idea what it was like for her, being in her third month of pregnancy, to lose fifteen pounds in seven days so that all her dresses hung on her like on a closet hanger, and to be called from work for interrogations every day: to have to get up from your desk in the sudden cotton-batting silence with all eyes fixed on you, and have the driver in a military uniform waiting for you in a car downstairs—and to walk around for an entire month with your eyes wide open as if stuck between your eyelids, dry, but hot, like after crying. Every fear has its volume and weight—Natalia’s filled her already-diminished body to the brim, pushing out through her eyes and, probably, the final straw (the clang, and the raising of a giant lid) came not even that night when she sat weeping in the kitchen the way that one sobs two, perhaps three times in one’s life (Bastards! Animals! Damn them!), already knowing that her husband, Anton, was right, that she, what had become of her, could not possibly bear a healthy child—the final straw came later when, having washed her face with ice-cold water and feeling the cold slowly taking possession of her, still living, the marble cold of a tombstone moist with beads of dew, she drew upon the full force of her icy body and spoke to the terrified hot little lump of life that desperately burrowed into the deepest recesses inside her, Forgive me. Forgive me, baby, my sweet little girl or boy, my darling—your mother dare not suckle you on her fear.
      And there was another thing you didn’t know—that a few years later, in the middle of that brief time when your parents were not expecting to be arrested any day, your sister would appear to your mother. Natalia could never quite make out her face—it was obscured by a pale, shimmering smudge, as if seen through tears; the whole dream came to her in black and white, a vision seen at night or in luminescent lighting: out of the darkness a tiny moonlight-pale girl wordlessly reached out for her, as if drowning, with long, pale arms, and outstretched fingers, weepy and quivering, draped over an expanding spiderweb of threadlike tendons. The arms reached with a pleading tremble for a human touch—Mommy, that gesture mutely begged, Mommy. And here’s where Natalia was plunged into that crumbling abyss of terror after which comes nothing—her own desperate scream woke her, and remained clanging around her entire unhinged body as she sat at the edge of her bed curled into a ball, teeth chattering as her body temperature fell (only the face of a clock on the dresser glowed in the darkness: it was 3:00 a.m.) and rather than the release from the nightmare she felt the crush of the full weight of the crystal-clear awareness that this terror was not her own—and that she would now have to live with this knowledge evermore. That terror came from without—it swept in from out there, out of the mute luminescence of the night, where it held in the amniotic fluids her rejected child, her little girl cast out into the moonlit cold—only now was it revealed to her that it was a girl, because the abortion was late term and difficult, permission barely granted on the grounds of “mental-health indicators,” and in reply to her blubbering question as to whether it was a girl or a boy Natalia heard, “Who the hell can tell now,” and it was at that point that she dug in and, with teeth clenched and tears dammed, demanded that they show her that which was or would have been her second child. Because, no matter how crushed she was, the idea that this child, this tiny crumb of existence as fragile as a breath of air, this bud of already sovereign flesh that had managed to change all the clocks in her body, so adeptly setting up and furnishing its first earthly abode, could disappear without a trace, unrecognized, unnoted by anyone, unrevealed in any way, would be as intolerable as a pair of white-hot metal forceps applied to her brain—that there should be no sign of it, no remembered feature, not a mite, no eye color or shape of the skull, nor even sex, nothing whatsoever, naught, as though she, Natalia, had only been pregnant with fear and not with a human child. What she saw—what floated in the cynical gleam of a zinc basin—looked like slices of raw liver in black clumps of oily blood, and that indeed was the sum of your sister’s earthly existence, this “who the hell can tell now”: the curette had cut lengthwise and crosswise, like the mythical self-wielding ax—everything that had been rooting in the moist steamy ground was uprooted, cleared, grubbed, stripped, scraped down, down to the yellow clay, to the white bone, to the permafrost, to the petrified layer of lye at the bottom of the pit, to the rattle of cattle cars on buckled rails across the snow-swept tundra. Twenty years before, it was one such cattle car that carried Anton, delirious with fever, and among the prisoners there was a woman, whose name he fixed in his memory for all times and bequeathed to Darka—a deposit into the bank of indivisible time—the woman who collected shearling coats, or even furs—there were aristocrats in that car, old Galician professors, high clergy, a former envoy to the Imperial Parliament in Vienna, with his whole family, whom everyone still addressed as “Your Excellency”—their heavy furs still held the ethereal dust of prewar European hotels, women’s perfume, flakes of opera house gilding, tasseled velvet drapery, while the shearlings smelled bitter and hard as such coats should, with the acrid stench of old sweat and ineradicable dirt under fingernails, the waft of cattle pens and millet gruel with milk, the animal-lair breath of a peasant hut, and the grim, churchy smell of beeswax candles. That woman shouted all of those things away from their owners, pushing them to crowd under shared covers, and heaped the goods over the eighteen-year-old boy burning up with fever, and laid herself on top so he wouldn’t be able to struggle free. For three days she held down, with her own body, this mountain of lifesaving warmth that sucked death out of the boy and into itself; for three days in a packed cattle car somewhere on the immeasurable distance between Lviv and Chita, this woman labored to give Anton another life from the collective suffocating, furry, woolen, felted mass of their ruined lives, as if from a common womb. On the third day Anton’s fever broke, and in a few days more they arrived to where they were being taken, and Anton never saw that woman again. For Natalia—gutted, violated, and crucified on that gynecological chair—it became abundantly clear that the crazed ax had never stopped chasing Anton—along the rail tracks, for twenty years, chopping and slicing away the mounds of protective warmth thrown together by various women, nests to nurture new little lives—isn’t that what the KGB lieutenant colonel meant when he told him during an interrogation (in Russian, of course), long after Anton was rehabilitated, allowed to earn his degree, allowed to teach, “You were in the camps, and now you don’t want to work with us—you’ll have cause to regret it”? Regret it, whimper like a dog with a broken spine, beg forgiveness of your children for bringing them into this world—that’s what they wanted from us, vermin, bastards, monsters, not on your life, I will raise her, my Darka, my girl, the only one left to me now, I will not let her slip away the way I let this one, letting you spread my knees and turn her into these pieces of raw liver in clots of black blood, my baby, will you ever forgive me? . . . This—or something like this—was your mother’s experience at the time, so it is no wonder that when she finally did see your sister on that luminescent night and felt, if only for an instant, her first and last terror she carried with her out of this world, she immediately knew it to be the answer to her mute pleading. So it must have been, because after that Ivánna never showed herself again—neither to your mother, nor to you. Another twenty years passed, half of them consumed by Anton’s slow dying, and only then, once the heavy lid closed down behind him, and only a biting winter wind was left in the empty cemetery to tussle the black gilded bows of the wreaths and the chrysanthemum blooms stuck in the slimy mud kneaded by countless feet, did Natalia have another dream: in that dream Anton was walking away from her; she saw only his back and there was night all around, but out of that night stepped a little girl in a white dress who took his hand—she did it so confidently, and so parental was her husband’s instant response, that Natalia, for whom the entire scene unfolded in silence, felt utterly at peace, and thought as they disappeared in the distance: Well that’s good, he’s home. It was strange, though, that this time she did not recognize the girl: all her attention was focused on her husband, and the next morning, when she told the dream to Darka, she did not understand her daughter when she said, looking aside, “It was her.” “Who?” Natalia felt as if she had tripped on something in the middle of a fast run: for the first time in what felt like a single clotted infinity, this dream promised her peace, and she responded to her daughter’s abrupt surgical intrusion into it with the same cold internal spasm she experienced at every unexpected ring of the doorbell, or a hand-delivered telegram, born of the apprehension, no, certainty, that once again, something was going to be taken away from her. But you, her sweet Darka, now a grown woman, hands falling free along the lines of your strong and beautiful young body—neither a cigarette nor a cup of coffee occupied them—said with barely felt cruelty, or rather, with a tantalizing urge to grab your mother by the shoulders and shake her as someone who refuses to wake up, “That was the child who was never born—and so now they’ve finally met.” Natalia then realized that it was true, that’s exactly how things were, and in the flash of gratitude to this, her living child, her very own, only now discovered ally who was able to make sense of everything so quickly—another insight flashed and left her mind: that the ax had finally passed them and left, cleaving off one half of the tree, and the lost half now brought itself together, in that riveting of the girl and the man’s hands, out there, on the other side, which meant the half that remained here—Darka and her—were out of danger. That was the meaning of the long-forgotten if ever-known peace the dream delivered her into.
      And Natalia began to cry.
      You held her then, because your hands were free—freed by your father’s death. It took two lives to ransom yours. Two whole lives.
      But you—you slipped through, Darka.

© Oksana Zabuzhko  
© translation Halyna Hryn 2020

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