Story posted on April 10, 2009 at 3:16 PM

My childhood ends on a yellow and dusty road somewhere in the North East of the Ukraine, in a village called Korobki. There I spent my summers from the age of eight ‘till eleven, living with my grandparents, the ever rotating circle of visiting family and friends and Aunt Nina and Uncle Tolya – our Ukrainian peasant landlords. 

The living conditions were status quo for a Ukrainian village - lots of filth, dirt and disrepair. Plumbing was a luxury afforded only in the cities and the outhouse was an intimidating 50 meter walk through a sunflower field. The stench around it need not be described, and really should not even be imagined. The field itself was generally neglected, with random patches of sunflowers, corn and pumpkins growing here and there. Aunt Nina would sell the produce at the bazaar once in a while, but more as a hobby than as a source of income.

My grandparents rented a room in the main house, which at some point was painted dark green but every year seemed to turn closer and closer to a dark and depressing shade of brown. Our room was the main room, Aunt Nina and Uncle Tolya lived in it in the off-season. Two others were small and inconsequential, containing petty crap one would expect to find in a peasant household – rusted household tools, filthy pieces of cloth and wooden water buckets. By the front door was Uncle Tolya’s personal room where one June evening he proudly placed his new black and white television.  He spent several hours strategically mounting the antenna on the roof and every couple of weeks you could see him trying to watch TV. The reception was beyond awful and Uncle Tolya would alternate between jiggling the antenna, smacking the television and yelling out “you dirty mother” in frustration.

Across the yard was the guest house. It had only two rooms and our relatives would stay there on their visits. I remember nothing else of it except it was in a slightly better state than the main house. The one night I spent there my naïve second great-aunt Anya the Rabbit informed me that Stalin was indeed a great man and did many great things for the Soviet people. I am proud to say that even at the age of ten I knew what a dimwitted statement that was. But that’s how the old country was and still is, it likes its royalty deified and unsullied.

Between the main house and the guest house lay the yard. When a westerner thinks of a yard he sees lifeless American lawns or over-peppered British gardens. When a Ukrainian thinks of a yard he sees dust, dog drool and chicken poop. This yard was certainly no exception. It was grey and yellow, sticky and stinky. Walking across it you always risked stepping into something. But more importantly, walking across it you had to be aware of its residents.

An ancient dog house stood on one end of the yard, by the guest house. Its contemptuous resident mutt was Dozorka, who might have passed for a German shepherd in looks and undoubtedly in temperament. Dozorka was not one of those cultured and pruned characters you see in dog runs around Manhattan. Dozorka was a real dog, who understood that her sole mission in life is to guard the house, bark a lot and generally act hostile towards anything that moves. She suffered from a chronic case of fleas and when not chasing stray chickens or giving me hostile glares was busy chewing away at her hide. When Dozorka was in heat, stray mutts from all around Korobki would camp out outside the front gate, howling away their loneliness until Aunt Nina would chase them away with a broom. My social interaction with Dozorka was limited to knowing the exact radius of her chain and having memorized at least a half dozen escape routes if that chain breaks. 

Though Dozorka and I were not on the best of terms, during my next to last summer in Korobki I was saddened to learn of her passing. Or her execution to be exact. It was late fall – not a very lively time in a Ukrainian village. The summer tourists are gone, the fields are long bare and the weather stinks. Dozorka, apparently unaware of these psychologically strenuous factors, reverted back to an old habit of hers – snatching chickens. This wasn’t hard to do as the chickens roamed all over the yard, and were too stupid to understand that they should stay out of the hungry dog’s reach. Fair enough and after the first chicken incident Uncle Tolya gave Dozorka a serious beating. The dog whined and cried but the lesson should have been learned then and there. It happened again a week later and Uncle Tolya gave Dozorka another beating, even bigger than the first. But it was late fall, maybe Dozorka wasn’t getting as much food as she was used to and she snatched her final chicken. Uncle Tolya, who happened to be on a bender with a couple of pals, took this misstep quite seriously. As his second cousin Stepan recollected, Uncle Tolya cursed a couple of times, smashed his hand on the table, had a shot of vodka, spit on the ground, went into the house, came out with a rifle and shot the dog in the head. So ended Dozorka. She was replaced by Dozor who was a little better tempered than his predecessor and a bit wiser about eating chickens but whom I avoided like the plague nonetheless.

As for the chickens, they were a story of their own. They were loud, they were filthy and they stunk like all hell. They went anywhere and everywhere and I can hardly imagine a more perfect image of stupidity than a cackling hen obliviously pacing the yard. Hens of course couldn’t lay eggs on their own and had a rooster to oversee the proceedings. The rooster was a tall and proud fellow who walked around with his head high, looked at everyone crookedly and generally behaved exactly like a lad with a harem of thirty should. The rooster generally had more common sense than the chickens and developed an adversarial understanding with the dog that each would try to break occasionally – the rooster by impeding on the dog’s territory and the dog by trying to bite the rooster’s head off. 

The clever rooster dynasty ended my last summer in Korobki. The newest king of the yard was an overgrown, proud and petulant fool we called Petka. Petka was big and aggressive and not afraid to show it. He threw evil glares at Dozor. He pecked away at his hens when they misbehaved. And worse yet, he absolutely could not stand me. Every time the rooster and I shared the yard, Petka would try to attack me. 

You might think that a rooster running after you is a joke, but let me assure you, those things are clever, determined and vicious. Petka went as far as devising a variety of entrapping strategies. His favorite was to pretend not to notice me. He would allow me to make it to the middle of the yard and then sprint towards me with wild abandon. On one occasion he caught me by surprise and if not for my youthful nimbleness, Petka would have left a scar or two on my calf. His other strategy was to wait for me by the doorway, where we would have a stare off and I would either make do with a broom or by running a flat out sprint to the fence, taking a break there, and then making another sprint towards the guest house. Take note that in the heat of it all I had to be aware of Dozor as well, since I am sure all this excitement in the yard made him anxious to bite someone.

Petka met his end sometime in late July when his usually astute rooster brain malfunctioned. Instead of attacking me, Petka assaulted my grandmother, leaving a nasty and bloody gash on her leg. Not a smart move, dear Petka! That night I came home to a freshly cooked rooster for dinner. Uncle Tolya beheaded Petka on the spot for his indiscretion.

There was also the house cat, Mashka, who was of social and gregarious nature. She was orange and white, fairly well kempt and quite insistent in being included in all things human. Whenever we would eat dinner, she would sit by our table, loudly demanding a serving of her own, a demand to which my grandmother chronically acquiesced. This was of course cute and not really a problem. A real problem arose when Mashka got tired of begging and one day joined us for dinner with a freshly caught, half-chewed mouse for main course. The shock on her face when my grandmother told her to scram was indescribable. 

Mashka created a further problem the next year, around the time Uncle Tolya decided to install a shower in the yard.  The shower could be best classified as rudimentary - wooden and handmade, it functioned thanks to a concoction of gears and levers, as well as two buckets of hot water that one needed to heat up in order to get a hot shower. Uncle Tolya wrestled with the shower for three weeks running until finally deciding that the river was still the safer and healthier option. As for Mashka, several months earlier she got knocked up by some local stray. And decided to give birth to her seven kittens right under our porch. For three days straight her cries and whines were totally unbearable, with my grandmother bringing the suffering cat fish and milk for relief. The seven kittens though were blind and exceptionally cute, and thanks to my grandmothers’ intervention were given out as presents by Aunt Nina instead of drowned.

But let me get back to the fence, my safe haven. The fence separated the yard from the field and that was where I usually ran into Anastasia Petrovna or Babushka as I called her or Babka as my grandmother called her in private. Babka Anastasia Petrovna was Uncle Tolya’s mother. She was ancient and half mad, and fully looked the part. I was told that she was in her mid-eighties, grew up during the tsar, lived through one revolution, two world wars, seventy years of communism and a plethora of other pleasantries that befell Ukraine in the 20th century. Like a true peasant woman she was illiterate and had a ton of kids – a couple of daughters and five sons. Three sons died in the Red Army fighting the Germans, and one, Uncle Tolya’s twin, blew himself up at the age of six playing with live ordnance he found in the woods. The story was quite sad and usual for those battle-scarred parts. 

That was Babka Anastasia Petrovna, and by the time I came around she was incoherent and demented. She had no teeth, and with false teeth still being a big city novelty, I had serious problems understanding her. All I could make out was that she called me “sweetie pie[1] Zhenechka” and loved giving me ancient chocolate candies she must have stored up in the attic over the decades. The chocolates looked absolutely disgusting and I accepted them out of politeness only, discarding them later. A year or two after I left Babka Anastasia Petrovna went fully mad, started having nightmares, probably about her dead sons, and screaming in the middle of the night. May she rest in peace.

The chocolates weren’t just for me. They were for Natashenka as well, Babka’s four year old great-granddaughter and the most misfortunate child I have ever met. She was clumsy and awkward, wholly aloof and clueless.  At the age of three she tried playing with the rabbits, with the term playing constituting smacking rabbits’ heads and yanking their years. One of the rabbits took exception to this treatment and nearly bit Natashenka’s little hand off, a crime for which Uncle Tolya dutifully butchered him for, with Aunt Nina serving a delicious rabbit soup for dinner later in the night.

Natashenka’s aloofness was not a genetic mishap. She was cursed with the worst set of parents one could ever imagine. Her father was Serezhka, Uncle Tolya and Aunt Nina’s only son. Serezhka was a scoundrel in the fullest sense of the word. He was vulgar, dirty and chronically semi-inebriated. His conversational range was limited to vulgar exclamations, thoughtful remarks on preponderance of manure on village roads and wistful soliloquies on vodka quality assurance processes. The latter referring to going somewhere in the village and getting ripped beyond belief, usually with the help of the afore mentioned second cousin Stepan. 

Aunt Nina treated Serezhka’s behavior with the forgiveness and understanding of a mother towards her only child. She sometimes remarked to my grandmother that Serezhka does get a little crazy sometimes, but all in all everything should be OK. My grandmother could only shake her head. And Uncle Tolya wasn’t too far behind either. In the days leading up to the visit, he would walk around the yard, fixing up random things and dropping off hand remarks about how he hopes that everything is OK up there in the big city. There was a note of guarded optimism in his tone. Optimism that at first would be justified with Serezhka’s joyous arrival, and optimism that would be utterly destroyed an hour later after the latter would start talking non-sense and drinking. These visits would invariably end with Uncle Tolya depressed and distractedly mumbling to my grandfather about the fishing season.

It would not be fair to discuss Serezhka without mentioning his better half, Svetlana. She was tall, potentially stately with a short haircut and confident demeanor. Of course she was also a foul mouthed and ill tempered floozy. She was unbelievably loud and demanding, driving Aunt Nina crazy with her complaints on village living. Her mothering skills with Natashenka could be summarized as either ignoring the little girl or spending a concentrated five minutes telling her what a clumsy and irritating child she was. Natashenka would stare blankly at her mother and then either run crying into Aunt Nina’s arms or absent mindedly wander towards Dozor with whom she had a sort of a lovey-dovey relationship. The dog tolerated her much better than the rabbits, even putting up with the head-smacking and ear yanking that the rabbits found so offensive.

Svetlana and Serezhka’s relationship could be described as truly bipolar. On the one side there was true love there, as in the brief moments when the two were not viciously fighting they generously circled each other like two pheasants in love, acting pleasant and quite pre-occupied with each others’ wellbeing. The other 95% of the time Svetlana was busy informing Serezhka, in tones both soft and hysterical, what a failure he is and what an idiot she is to have married him. Serezhka’s reply would at first be a vicious and loud counterattack, followed by frustrated back and forth pacing and finally with disgusted growls and departure into town. He would come back many hours later drunk as a swine and at further accusations of his wife would reply at first with snarls and then with submissive bowing of his head. Natashenka would sit innocuously through these episodes, busy playing with her toys or trying to yank the cat’s tail. As long as the noise wasn’t directed towards her, all was good. 

Uncle Tolya and Aunt Nina didn’t take well to these visitations. They would walk around with big fake smiles on their faces, trying to keep things tidy around the yard. Aunt Nina would cook her grand meals for which Uncle Tolya sacrificed either a chicken or a rabbit. The dinners would be full of overjoyed conversation and hopeful toasts, to which the young couple could only grunt – at that point they usually weren’t speaking to each other. Even Babka Anastasia Petrovna would make a formal appearance, sitting on the corner of the bench, chewing whatever food she could chew and once in a while making random exclamations on Natashenka’s new dress or the benevolence of the good Lord. Unlike yours truly, Natashenka ate Anastasia Petrovna’s chocolates with great happiness and joy.

But back to Stepan, Uncle Tolya’s cousin and Serezhka’s drinking buddy. He would show up once every couple of weeks wearing the same shirt and pair of pants. He had a pleasant demeanor and some football knowledge, which he was only too happy to impart upon me. He was the eternal optimist, and in his esteemed opinion our local god-forsaken Metallist club was always near Premier League glory. Stepan’s response to my observations of Metallist’s near relegation status was usually a wave off with a friendly smile. 

This simple, happy-go-lucky nature seemed to serve Stepan well in life. He never could hold down a job, having been fired from every possible duty at the local resort. He did have a wife but she was usually busy either kicking him out or taking him back in. He liked to fish but never bothered to stake claim to his own spot, occasionally taking up my grandfather’s spot instead – a sacred thing in those parts. If it was someone else, my grandfather would have chased him off, but Stepan was accepted, albeit with a slight degree of irritation. Whenever he was around, fishing would be lousy as his endless banter would chase away all the fish. Yet he was still fun to have around, say to tell him of the time I caught a baby carp and had to tackle it to the ground as the thing tried making a run for the water after I unhooked it. Yes, he was one of those aimless characters you can always have around though never pin down. Stepan always came and went, with enough pleasantries to be welcomed back but not enough style to ever be missed.

As for the resort, it was a two minute walk from our house towards the Donets River. Its main clientele consisted of the workers of the Kharkov Tractor Plant who were fat and gruff blue-collar men with enormous bellies which were caused, according to my grandmother, by the untying of their bellybuttons. They spent their time sitting around, spitting a lot and playing dominoes. On particularly adventuresome days they would play volleyball or badminton, though they were far too uncoordinated to try either. None of them knew how to swim, so around midday they could be sighted paddling doggie-style, like a bunch of hapless bears, on the river’s shallow end.

The resort was not of the bottom sort and even had its own movie theater and an occasional disco night. My first attempt at dancing ended rather ruefully when I overheard two slightly older girls laughing at my improvisational style. The movies were a different story, and every night, while the men with their sunburned wives dutifully waited in line for admittance, I snuck in through the side entrance which the moronic resort staff always forgot to lock. There I watched classic Soviet war films, Western imports and grown-up fares such as “Aphrodites’ secrets.” 

This routine served me well until my last summer in Korobki. That’s when my step-cousin Sergei decided to join my grandparents and I at the village. Sergei was four years older and significantly bigger than me. He was acutely aware of both of these factors, and showed no hesitation in smacking around and embarrassing me. He was at the age when the opposite sex starts to matter and spent his time trying to entertain the young ladies at the resort. They had a crew of seven who always seemed to be together, talking and laughing about things I could never understand. Once in a while Sergei would invite me to join the older crowd which I naturally found very exciting. But this only led to disappointment as each time I learned that his sole goal was to rough up and embarrass me in front of his peers. The process would start out with Sergei waving me over with a big fake smile for which I fell nonetheless, then asking me condescending questions and finally smacking me over the head over my wiseguy replies. The girls would then stand up for me, announcing that I should really be left alone since I was too young to hang out with them anyway. I never did manage to exact revenge on Sergei for the humiliation he put me through. The only measure of satisfaction I ever did receive was when the boat he spent half the summer building with Uncle Tolya sank on its maiden voyage. Uncle Tolya, upon whom Sergei looked as somewhat of a mentor, never recovered in his eyes.  

As for the Donets River, it was nice. Polluted to the point that the authorities forbid motorized boats on it, but nice nonetheless. My distant relative Boris, who had a warm demeanor and buck teeth, and I would take a row boat out and I’d practice being an oarsman. When my other grandfather, Yury, would come I would actually get to swim across it – some 200 meters, an exemplary feat for any ten year old I must say. Exemplary but with a morbid twist as one summer a young conscript went swimming across Donets with his girlfriend. Somewhere in the middle he went under. His girlfriend thought he was joking around but he wasn’t. It took divers three days to find his body – leg cramps got him they said.

Donets River was nice for fishing as well. My grandfather and I went every evening, with my grandmother cooking up our catch for breakfast the next day. Invariably my grandfather always caught more fish than me and eventually its quiet appeal fell victim to the disco night and the movies of the resort. I do remember the first fish I ever caught there, a tiny perch that vociferously appealed for mercy as I held it in my thrilled hands. A royal pardon was granted indeed.

Walking through the woods to our fishing spot was a little hill. On top of it stood a lonely grave – a grave of an unknown soldier who died in 1943 during one of the battles around the village. In the middle of the village was a larger memorial to all those who died fighting the German occupation, but somehow that grave was always closer to my heart and I still remember it clearly. I was told that when they found the soldier’s there was too much blood on his documents and hence he could never be identified. So now he lies nameless in a village far from home, away from the noisy river and the lively resort, all alone…

And the list of relatives who were supposed to come to visit us in Korobki was always miles long. There were the mysterious relatives from Odessa, who were always making their way over, though in the end they never did make it. There was Aunt Fira who did manage to visit us once in a while but had big flabby arms, liked to rumor-monger with my grandmother and had a mysterious disease called hydrophobia. Then there was Uncle Fima and his daughter Anya the Rabbit, the afore mentioned Soviet patriot. Uncle Fima was nearly eighty, spry as a chicken and mysteriously missing a nail on one of his fingers. Every morning he would go speed walking as Anya the Rabbit chased after him, reminding him to watch his health. Anya the Rabbit was an old dame, sweet and naïve, and completely overwhelming in her auntly affections towards me. Her counterpart Anya the Hare, my grandmother’s sister and her daughter Larissa would come to visit as well though their treatment of me was far less burdensome. Then there was Alla, my grandfather’s sister, who once in a while would bring me from the city to Korobki and with whom I frantically ran down the road once, trying to get away from a particularly nasty alpha goose.

Uncle Tolya and Aunt Nina took everything in stride. Aunt Nina worked as a cook at the resort and Uncle Tolya as a night watchman. Aunt Nina would sneak me snacks from their dinner table. Uncle Tolya would say that I am a good boy and rub my head. The one time my grandparents and I had a celebratory dinner with them, he made sure I drank along with the adults, and about two and a half glasses of wine later I was officially drunk for the first time in my life. I remember leaning back in my chair, my head spinning and Uncle Tolya patting me on the shoulder and telling my grandfather, “He is grown up enough for this now.” Uncle Tolya will get kudos from me for this for the rest of my life. 

Their story unfortunately does not end so well. A year after I immigrated my grandparents moved out to a house down the street. Babka Anastasia Petrovna’s nightmares were just too loud for my grandfather’s health. Aunt Nina started drinking heavily. She was fired from her job as a cook though Uncle Tolya managed to get her rehired as a watchwoman. This didn’t help, the drinking continued and despite Uncle Tolya working both his and her shifts, she got fired from there as well. Uncle Tolya, never shy for a drink either, picked up his consumption as well. And the only thing that comes to mind is whatever happened to poor Natashenka…

As for me, I left Korobki on that yellow and dusty road in the summer of 1987. I was going to the village next door to buy my grandfather the Sunday newspaper. The sky was perfectly blue and the grass was perfectly green. The birds might have been chirping but I remember it as perfectly quiet. A football match was running through my mind. My grandmother told me the day before that since I am moving to America she might never see me again. My grandfather told her to stop crying and being ridiculous, but I could see that deep down he saw it as a realistic possibility as well. A jeep passed me on the road, kicking up a cloud of dirt. And I walked into it, knowing that next summer I will not be in Korobki but in some foreign land; that I might never see Uncle Tolya fighting with his TV or Uncle Fima speed walking or my grandfather fishing again and that my life in that long forgotten, backward village will forever be left behind in my childhood memories…

[1] “Golubchik” – little pigeon to be exact