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By God, did I want to find myself again in that courtyard! I was connected to it as though by rubber ropes, and the more I was being pulled from the courtyard of my childhood, the greater was the force with which these ropes were drawing me back. Or alternately I felt as though I were a dust particle that cannot withstand the mighty pull of a vacuum cleaner — I was sucked in and kept going all through those tubes and ducts dreaming of at last being carried to my ultimate destination and thrown on the asphalt of my very own, very dear courtyard, the very best one in the world.
But if anyone asked me then why I wanted to go there so much, I would hardly be able to answer in any clear way — I would have gabbled something incoherent. I just wanted to get back to it, OK? And that’s it. I do need to get back, how can’t you understand?
I had left my yard and the city of Kyiv in the month of August of 1941. One day my father, already wearing his new officer’s uniform, rushed from the barracks situated quite a way off in the street called Kerosynna (Kerosene — tr.) to our house in Lyuteranska (Lutheran) Street, ran up the stairs to our apartment on the fifth floor, and bursting in, shouted, “You’ve got about fifteen minutes to pack!” My mother and my elder brother — I was too small to participate — faced the daunting task of having to pack our possessions in a few suitcases and bags within an impossibly short time.
He warned that the small truck whose platform was already overflowing with somebody else’s suitcases and bags — not counting the refugees themselves — would not wait any longer. “You hear the honking? That’s the truck. It’s your last chance to get out of town.” The rapidly advancing German troops would encircle the city of Kyiv within several days. But, he added, in several days the situation at the front would radically improve, the city would be retaken and you’d be able to return back home…
But the opportunity to go back to my native town — and to my native courtyard, the courtyard of my childhood — took seven long years to present itself. And all those years, filled with moving from place to place and miserable life in the evacuation, I dreamed of going back to my native courtyard, to my school, to my native town.
On the one hand, by Kyiv standards it was an ordinary courtyard, one of many. On the other, there was something special in it. Our house stood on the slope of a rather steep hill, and on the side of the street it rose to the height of five floors — but the side facing the yard had additional two stories. On one side of the house ran a wooden gallery with doors of the second and third floors opening into it. Trucks and cars could gain access to the yard through a gateway and narrow passage, so narrow that trucks had a problem of fitting in, and once in, they had to inch their way through. The back part of the yard was occupied by a dump and wooden sheds and lean-tos that stood against the wall of the opposite house and contained mostly firewood. They reminded me the boards of an ancient ship.
The yard had several levels; there were ladders and staircases leading up and down, cul-de-sacs, niches and passages suggesting secret places. Now, in my memory I can compare it to the pictures of Escher (Mauritis Cornelius Escher,1898–1972, Dutch artist whose lithographs and woodcuts depict imaginary metamorphoses, geometric distortions, and architectural impossibilities — tr.) in which the stairs leading up also take you down. You could not find a better place for playing hide-and-seek and war (yes, before and during the war kids played soldiers and war). The children from the neighbouring houses envied the unlimited possibilities for play our yard offered, but we showed collective yard patriotism and prevented any incursions of the neighbours into our territory.
The courtyard permeated my whole being and kept appearing and featuring even in my night dreams. And there was one amazing thing to these dreams — no matter whether, in my dreams I was a little boy, a teenager, a young man or an ageing man, the action of the dreams took place in one and the same place — the courtyard of my childhood. The dreams took me to the yard even when the action, in accordance with the loci of the reality, should have taken place anywhere else rather than in that yard. But dreams have their own, incomprehensible logic — if at all. The events separated by space and time kept occurring in that yard. It became the stage where everything that occurs has its own, secret sense, no matter how impossible the unfolding situation would be in real life. The yard was the stage on which, like in Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, its enclosed space could be a forest, the sea, a field or a palace, depending on the whim of the demiurge.
While we were away from Kyiv, I kept so insistently and persistently begging my father to do everything possible and impossible to go back to Kyiv, that, probably fearing that his refusal might damage my psychic health, he yielded to my entreaties, and after the war took his family back to Kyiv (incidentally, to do so he had to reject several lucrative offers of jobs and decent apartments in other cities). To return to the devastated Kyiv was to go into the unknown, with unclear prospects for the future.
On the very first day of our return to Kyiv, as soon as we settled in our new apartment, I went to see “my” courtyard. I was so excited and nervous as though I was on my way to my first date with a girl. It turned out it was not easy to get to Lyuteranska Street — the central part of Kyiv was still the scene of almost complete devastation, with most of the houses turned into brick boxes, empty inside, or reduced to huge piles of rubble. I had to take a circuitous route to get to the house where we had lived before the war — and to the coveted yard. Almost at every step I gasped — the Ginsburg House, the tallest in Kyiv, gone; the Chervona Armiya theatre — a huge hole in the ground; here and there — and everywhere — gaps, like knocked out teeth, in the rows of buildings. The house on the corner of Lyuteranska Street and Merinhovska Street — gone. But I did get to the house number 11 in Lyuteranska Street. At first glance, not much had changed — the same front wall, the paint peeling; the same asphalt on the sidewalk, all in cracks…
But the house was dead — not the house anymore, just a box, empty inside. The side which used to have seven floors collapsed altogether. Around the empty windows the signs of the devastating fire were particularly conspicuous. Through the windows I could see the insides of what used to be my house, with no floors dividing the stories. Our balcony was miraculously there — I even spotted the frame of the metal bed on it. It was on this bed that my brother and I used to sunbathe on good summer days. The balcony had seen a stunt my brother had performed with me clinging to his back — he, to prove his athletic strength, put me on his shoulders piggy-back, climbed over the railing and holding on to the posts carried me around the balcony, his feet dangling several dozen feet above the asphalt below. When he had begun to climb over the railing, I had uttered my first and last shriek of horror — I was quick to realize that in my situation the best thing was to sit tight and keep my mouth shut.
We had survived then, and now several years later, I was standing beneath that balcony with no chance of climbing up to it — there were no staircases to climb. After the initial shock passed, I noticed there were sturdy Ukrainian young girls and women working in and around the house, clearing up the rubble and getting things ready for rebuilding (the house was indeed rebuilt — tr.). Among them were people in dirty, enemy uniforms — German prisoners of war. To see them, wearing the uniforms of the aggressor was also shocking. But I was in still for another shock — the girls were openly flirting with the Germans!
But the main thing was that I was back and was in my yard! So familiar, so dear! Here are the stone steps leading to the apartment in the basement, the steps polished by the soles of the boots of their occupants — the Kutsenko family; they used to have a “New Year” (in the Soviet times Christmas and consequently Christmas trees were banned — but the tradition could not be banned and Christmas trees were rechristened “New Year” trees — tr.), so nicely decorated with little flags, each bearing a picture of the communist party leaders; next to the Kutsenkos lived the Kohan family about whom I knew nothing except that they were even poorer than our family; there was also the Aronovych family — one woman and her two husbands — or so the rumour had it; these two husbands were always elegant and polite. What happened to these people, I wondered looking at the empty, blackened windows.
And on these steps I used to sit in the evenings… Once I inadvertently overheard a conversation, conducted in the twilight behind — literally — my back. The conversation was about me. The two whispering voices informed each other that “he” — that is me — “had a crush on her.” “Her” was a girl named Nelya; she was one year my senior and attended school; I was several months below the school age and my crush was intensified by envy. When I realized that I was the subject of the whispering conversation, I felt very proud…
And there is a place where some sort of a shed used to stand — a shed for storing something. There was always a trough full of wet clay standing by and we, the boys, were fond of putting our hands into that clay and squeezing it and kneading it. Once, a small and curly-haired boy called Zhrik decided it’d be fun to strike the lay with a metal stick, but instead of the clay he struck my head. It did not hurt that much but there was a lot of blood that gushed from the open wound. My father and my brother who were promptly informed of the incident, came running. They took me to an emergency room of a nearby hospital where my wound was sewn up. I never cried in front of the other boys, and when I returned, my head all bandaged up, I felt I had earned a lot of respect. For some reason, I was somewhat embarrassed by the overt signs of this newly-won reputation — I did not think I deserved it. I did not cry and did not complain mostly because I was too shocked by what had happened.
And there are the ruins of those lean-tos — we used to play hide-and-seek there. It was such a great fun to be hiding in the semi-darkness of a lean-to, all alone, as though in a cave. Was it an atavistic, primordial craving for the safety of a cave? I don’t know but the slope of a nearby hill was dotted with the entrances to the caves that the kids had dug in the ground…
And here are the five steps of the porch; and over there the wide crack in the asphalt that had become even wider; and over there on the wall, the eternal formula, scratched into the bricks — Ivan + Manya = Love…
There were so many familiar things around, even barring the devastation — and yet something was wrong. I did not feel the exhilaration I had expected I would feel the moment I walked into my old, dear courtyard. It was not because of the obvious signs of ruination and destruction — no, it was something else, something different, but I could not put my finger on it. The reality proved to be too much different from my dreams and memories. It was as though I was looking through the viewfinder of an old photo camera — if things were out of focus you saw two overlapping images. By rotating the ring on the protruding lens you could make the two images fully coincide and merge — but in my case something was preventing me from getting things into the desired focus. I felt cheated and disappointed, and depressed.
I, dispirited and downhearted, walked around the yard, looking for something that would restore the focus and bring back the emotions of my childhood. The working women and the German prisoners of war noticed my anxious wandering to and fro across the yard, and began making comments. I could not tell whether they were suspicious or just mocking or wondering what this lanky bespectacled teenager in a jacket a couple of sizes too small for him, was up to.
Feeling more depressed and unnerved and self-conscious by the minute, I retired to the distant corner of the yard where the skeleton of a bench stood. I perched on the hard edge and pulled out a pack of cigarettes. The soviet cigarettes were without filter then, smelly and very strong. Puffing on my cigarette, I stared into the ground, wondering why the reality turned out to be so disturbingly different from my dreams. Taking a long drag on my cigarette, I raised my head and…
And at that moment a miracle happened. It caught me so much by surprise, that I had a coughing fit. Tears welled up in my eyes, and when I wiped them I discovered the thing I was looking for — I saw the yard of my childhood, the yard I had been longing for. Things came into focus, the images merged. What I saw around me and what I remembered became one, turning into a palpable, 3-D reality. I had really come back to the backyard of my childhood.
I had left this place when I had been a nine-year old boy, small in stature for that age, and I had returned seven years later, a sixteen-year old teenager taller than the average height, a young man who was addressed in queues and in stores with respect due to a grown-up — I had grown up in the intervening years almost by three feet and naturally, now I saw everything from a very deferent angle! Why did I not think about it before? How could I have overlooked such an obvious thing?
When I had sat down on that bench, I had gone down — in a very literal sense — to the height of a small nine-year old, and sitting there and looking up I began to see things the way I had seen them back then, from the same angle.
I remember that day of my coming back to Kyiv and returning to my courtyard very vividly and clearly. I was taught an excellent lesson then — it’s the angle at which we look at the world that makes all the difference.