Salki - Excerpt
My aunt would come from far away. The Christmas tree was in the corner, and after midnight there was carp in jelly and vodka in small glasses. “Zdrowie,” my grandfather would say, and they would clink glasses ceremoniously. All the ladies would gasp loudly to let everyone know how unused to drinking vodka they were, and Grandmother would even close her eyes and make faces. They would drink vodka and explain it helps digestion; my aunt would drink sitting all stiff in her chair. She barely swallowed and the story would begin and everyone knew that this is how it would be because it’s how it always had been. She had only one story: it was in Gaje Wielkie, the troops of Stepan Bandera came into the house and murdered the entire family. “I was laying in bed, Mom was there, Father was there” she would talk about the rest of the family and I can’t remember exactly what, and why there were so many people in the house. Maybe someone came to visit, like it happens in the countryside, like when there’s a war? “When they came, I jumped behind the bed and lay quietly on the floor, quiet as a mouse, and they kept shooting at Mommy, at Daddy, soon they’d murdered them all. Six people, six, all in front of me. And they kept killing our people all through the night. In the morning they dragged everyone out and buried them in a mass grave by the Orthodox Church.” “Only my family,” she would tell us “was buried by the house, right where the trees were planted the other day.” And she would start weeping, nothing could stop her now. She wept all the time anyway, waving her arms as if drunk, and then going back to peaceful weeping. Her eyes simply got wet, as if she suffered form chronic eye inflammation, and she delivered her story like a poorly trained actor. Bandera’s soldiers, the bed, the floor, killing, running into the night. And again, trembling as if from Parkinson’s disease, every tremble releasing an identical little cloud of history. I hated her. I begged my parents to never invite her again with her bloody story; a story that leads to madness. I didn’t care about Bandera, about the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, but no one ever explained anything, anyway. For them, Bandera was as obvious as dirt, water, or air was for me—they were convinced you don’t need to explain those things. Just like their hometown, which was an empty sound, impossible to understand, full of grief over what was long lost . . . My family used words that nobody knew, nobody used, that had nothing to do with our half of the house and garden in this post-German city. They would say: “ryskal,” “banderowcy,” “upowcy,” they would say “taskac´” instead of “carry”; I started talking like them and my brother would go berserk. “You talk like a Ukrainian!” he would shout, not sensing that, in part, he was one himself. My other family, on the Nowicki side, would speak differently too. For example: “salki”—we didn’t know this word. Salki are the rooms in an attic; they also used “nyz˙e,” for places where you can store your memories and memorabilia right above your head. Just like those stories here, the salki of my memory, which I open for everyone. They would even call to the hens differently, “pul, pul, pul” instead of “cheep, cheep, cheep,” and even my Lithuanian grandparents differed in this regard; a difference according to which history established its own border—my grandfather came from Lithuania, my Grandmother came from Belarus. They would say “przez˙egrac´,” and describe the horse as “cybaty”; when the skies where ripped open by a distant storm you could hear the silent małanka. It was where they lived that you could find z˙agary growing, they were the ones who would go out to get some braha. Their language was otherworldly, from a beautiful yet grim fairytale that they nurtured within them, even though they seemed cheerful and pleasant. They would contract the disease through foul air, spoil other’s minds, even though during the day you wanted to sit with them forever. Dividing lines went straight through the middle of the family, through the room, the table, the bed. Two brothers would face each other, one a Polish soldier, the other a Lithuanian policeman. Their children live in different countries and know very little about each other; and it can’t be glued back together. On both sides of the border they would curse the enemy and praise the memory of their own people; it’s hardly surprising they didn’t want to remember the others. They were labeled themselves, oppressed, so they labeled and oppressed others, without even realizing that they did.
We had to calm my aunt down because she would talk about everything at once, about her dreams and those of others, about the prophecies from the dreams becoming reality. She dreamt that it was 1942 and she was walking on an asphalt road, nothing around her, only the gray ground, gray ground. She kept walking and every time she reached the horizon there was just more road. But she kept walking because she wasn’t carrying anything and it was an easy walk. She was wearing a dress, shoes, her hands were empty. And after the seventh horizon she reached a cliff: the asphalt ended and dropped into a giant canyon, a river at its bottom, and terrifying waves kept echoing, foaming in rage. On the other side was her family, and others, but she couldn’t cross because the river was as wide as the Styx. And so she kept waiting for decades, she waited for the number of the deceased in her family to match what was foretold, to match the number of those standing on the other side of that dream river.