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Vasylko’s Marriage, a short story by Stepan Vasylchenko

 

The story “Vasylko’s Marriage” was written by Stepan Vasylchenko, a classic of the Ukrainian literature. Mostly, he wrote short stories.

He was born into a landless peasant family in the town of Ichnya in the Land of Chernihivshchyna in 1875 (died in Kyiv in 1932). His father worked as a tailor. Stepan began his schooling in 1895. Later he wrote, “I was the first in many generations of my peasant ancestors to go to the light of culture, to break through the wall that separated us, poor peasants, from the wonderful world of knowledge. I was a messenger who said goodbye to my grassroots, deep and sure of themselves, for a while — only to come back to them later. But I came back greatly changed.”

Oles Honchar, one of the prominent Ukrainian writers of the twentieth century, called Vasylchenko’s prose “poetic” and “full of respect for humanity.”

 

Vasylko’s big grey eyes stared at everyone from under a tall forehead with a severe expression; he walked in a dignified manner — both his gait and the look in his eyes made grown-ups smile. If anybody heard his voice without seeing him when he shooed a stray cow away from a buckwheat field, they would think it was the old and bearded cowherd Mikita shouting at the cow rather than the little boy Vasylko; it was only this spring that his first long pants were made for him to wear.

At home Vasylko surprised everyone too by talking or behaving like an old man.

At the table, if anyone spilled some borsch from the spoon on its way to the mouth or ate their bread letting too many crumbs fall on the table, Vasylko would cry out in an angry and grumbling voice, “Why is it that some people are so sloppy and messy?”

If he saw a man walk into the house without taking his hat off1, Vasylko would climb onto a bench or a stool and try to push the hat off the offender, pointing at the same time at the icons in the icon corner and hissing, “Those icons shame you!”

If he saw something at home that was done not the way he thought it should be done, he would climb onto the pich2 and berate from his perch those who “could not do anything right. Why not find out how it’s done by those who can do things right?”

Vasylko’s father, when he heard his son’s expostulations and grumbling, would say “You’ll probably be a boss of some kind and tell people how to do things properly when you grow up.”

And the closest of kin indeed began calling him “Boss”. The nickname stuck.

Being a boss did not prevent Vasylko from spending a lot of time on the pich or in the corner playing with his toys and with little sticks, pebbles, pieces of metal and God knows what else that he would bring into the house. He could spend the whole morning playing with them and mumbling something to himself.

His mother would tell him then, “Vasylko, you’d better get an ABC book and learn how to read! You’re getting to be old enough to get married and you spend so much time with your playthings!”

“All right, find me a wife then,” Vasylko would respond from the pich.

“Really? And what about your schooling? Wouldn’t it be necessary to finish your school first?”

“School? What can school give me?” Vasylko would reply, handling his shiny pieces of metal and shards of a mirror.

One evening, the whole family gathered for dinner at Vasylko’s parents house. When Vasylko’s father, mother, two elder brothers and a sister, who was still unmarried, sat down at the table, the father said in a tired voice, his head bent low and propped by a hand, “I can’t work any more. My legs can hardly move — they feel as though made of wood. My back hurts, my arms hurt! I’m getting too old to work! I think one of you, my boys, must get married, and then I’ll pass the running of the household to him! He and his wife will take care of everything, and we, your mother and me, will rest at last!”

Vasylko, who by that time had moved closer to the window, was sitting on the floor and though he seemed to be staring at the crescent of the moon that peeked out from behind the tops of the willow trees, he heard every word his father said.

“Now, the problem is, who, of the three boys, should get married first?” the father continued, as though expressing his thoughts aloud. “Mykola will be drafted to the army this fall, Petro has not finished his schooling yet… It leaves Vasyl3. He seems to be more inclined to start working rather than go to school…”

Vasylko shot a glance at his father and then turned back to staring at the moon, pretending he did not hear his name mentioned.

“Vasyl, I am talking about you. Shall we find a wife for you, or shall we wait until Petro finishes school and then gets married?”

Vasylko burst out laughing, shyly covering his mouth with his hand. He liked what his father was saying but he was not sure whether it was said in jest or whether his father was being serious.

“It’s hardly a laughable matter,” said the father in a sedate manner. “You’d better tell us — would you want to get married now, or whether we should wait a little more?”

“Yes, tell us, Vasyl,” his mother joined in, “if you agreed to get married, we could find a good girl for you even today.”

Vasylko looked at his family who all of them looked at him, and no one had even a ghost of a smile on their faces.

“Yes, really, why not to get married,” Vasylko thought to himself. “That’d be good to have a wife — she’d cook and wash my clothes, and I’d be lying on the pich, smoking a pipe. And once in a while, I’d call out to her, ‘hey, my old woman, bring me this or that!’ ”

“Well, have you made up your mind?” the mother urged her son to announce his decision.

Vasylko wiped his nose with the sleeve of his shirt, and after a short silence, said hesitantly, “Yeah, that’d be fun.”

“All right then!” the father exclaimed. “Now we’ll have to find a good girl for him. Vasyl, maybe you have someone in mind we should go to and ask for her hand in marriage?”

Vasylko immediately thought of a girl he sort of liked — it was the black-eyed Hanna. Once, on his way from the church, he had walked in a quagmire and Hanna, who had happened to be near, had pulled him out of the bog. He had lost his shoes in the liquid dirt and she had found them for him too. She had wiped his dirty face, all bathed in frightened tears, and even kissed him.

“There’s this girl Hanna — I want to marry her,” Vasylko said in a more resolute voice.

“All right, Hanna it will be,” his father agreed. “You know best who you’d want to marry. Yes, I know her — she’s a good girl. She comes from a good family, and she’s good-looking too, and healthy… And maybe she’ll bring a parcel of farmland with her as her dowry. That’d be nice! I give you my blessing, Vasyl!”

Vasylko felt that he should thank his father but for some reason he felt so shy he could not say a word, and only sniffed miserably.

“Let’s not waste time any more,” said the father firmly. “Let’s get dressed properly and go to Hanna’s place to ask for her hand in marriage.” Then turning to his wife he added, “Bring Petro’s Sunday shirt and sash, please.”

Vasylko’s mother brought out what her husband had told her to find, and began to dress Vasylko up. With his brother’s beautiful shirt on and the red sash wound around his midriff, Vasylko stood in the center of the room, his finger in his mouth. He looked self-conscious and uncomfortable in the festive dress too big for him. Vasylko’s mother put his father’s pipe into his pocket and tucked a pouch of tobacco into the sash. Vasylko’s father picked a loaf of bread from the table and gave it to the boy4. The loaf proved to be so big and heavy for him that Vasylko had a problem of holding it even with his two hands.

“Now, my son, say a prayer, and we’ll go. Let’s not tarry any longer — we should be at her house before dark,” said Vasylko’s father. “But before we go, I’ll have to ask you this — will you attend the community meetings instead of me? Will you pay taxes on time?”

Attend community meetings? That would not be a problem — but paying taxes? That was something that Vasylko had no idea about.

“Do you need money to pay taxes with?” he asked.

“You do.”

“But where will I get the money from?” asked the boy, completely at a loss.

“What do you mean, where you’ll get the money?” asked the man with a feigned surprise. “You’ll work and earn money. You’ll till the land, you’ll take in the harvest. You’ll be running this household for all of us, you’ll be the boss and you will tell us what to do.”

“Oh, well…” was all that Vasylko managed to say.

“You’ll have to support your wife, you’ll have to find a husband for your sister, you’ll look after your mother and me until we die… Will you do it? Will you take care of us?” asked Vasylko’s father.

Vasylko felt suddenly hot. His ears became flaming red. He was sorry he had gotten himself into this silly predicament. His eyes brimmed with tears, and his voice shook when he said, “I…I don’t… don’t want…”

“What do you mean you don’t want?” said his father gently in a low voice. “Who will take care of us? Who will provide food for us? While we were strong, we worked hard, we provided food for all the family, we brought you up and educated you, and now what? Will you chase us out from our house? Will you make us go into the world begging for food?”

His father’s words made him cringe. He felt so sorry for his mom and dad.

The loaf he was holding slipped from his hands and fell down to the floor, and he burst into a wail, “I’m too small yet! I can’t do all those things!”

No one of the family, except Vasylko, could suppress their laughter any more.

Vasylko looked at them laughing and realized he had been made fun of. It made him laugh too. But a moment later, he felt greatly ashamed, and covered his face with his hands. Then he clumsily and in a great hurry peeled off his brother’s shirt, ran to the pich and climbed onto it.

Since then, when he was asked, “Well, when are you getting married, Vasylko?” he would keep silent for a little while and then would answer demurely, “Get married? No way! Too much trouble!”

 


1 – it is an age-old custom in Ukraine that requires that men take off their hats when they enter a home or a church; foreigners who walk into a church without removing their hats or caps will still be hissed at by the old ladies.

2 – pich — in peasant houses a pich was a combination of an oven and stove for cooking and a place where one might lie down and keep warm.

3 – Vasylko is a diminutive from Vasyl.

4 – the bread was a part of the ceremony of zalytsyannya, that is of the marriage proposal.

 

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