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Evening Hour, a short story by Vasyl Stefanyk

 

Something drove him from wall to wall so hard that he couldnt sit down. He kept pacing the room. The surrounding furniture and corners blurred and disappeared in the evening twilight, while images from the past grew clearer in his head every moment.

This was the time of day when small children ran out of their homes to the crossroads and played boisterously. Girls would not drive herds home, saying that when the evening star rose in the sky, voices would carry with the settling dew  and they would sing, so that their voices would carry. In winter, Mother would spin wool and sing songs from her girlhood, but so sadly, as if lamenting her lost youth. Children would sit together on the stove, whispering something to each other, and then fall asleep without eating dinner. There was something magical about the evening.

He kept pacing and stroking his forehead with his hand, as if he wanted to lock all of his thoughts in his head so they wouldnt fly out, because he very much wanted to think them through.

Eh, who knows whats happened to him? He was such a good friend. I remember sitting in his yard one time. I think then he talked about white clouds. A white cloud, he said, outlined in gold, is moving across the sky leaving white lilies behind, and continues sowing, sowing white against a blue sky  an hour later, there was no cloud or lily, just a blue sky shimmering, like a blue sea. For some reason, my friend was sad then.

He kept pacing, and his eyes grew wide and innocent, like a childs.

I already forgot the ending. So, now Im forgetting Mothers songs! But I knew it not so long ago. Just a second. Mariyka and I drove the sheep into the field that had been mowed for hay. Mariyka was embroidering shirtsleeves in a bean-shaped pattern. She was embroidering the beans in red, their stems in blue, and outlining the borders between the beans with black thread. I was the one who was made to drive the sheep, since Mariyka was older. But there was one white-headed sheep that caused a lot of trouble and wandered into every garden and field. So I would take off my belt and we would tie the sheep with it. Peace and quiet at last. I would run around without a belt under the willows and whistle and shout across the entire field. And then Mariyka would call me to eat. We would eat bread and cheese from a leaf.

He was already sitting in a soft chair, but his boyhood memories continued to drive him, as in a dream, into wild fields filled with flowers, and you could pick them and pick them.

Then Mother came to us. She was returning from the fields, where she had brought food for the field hands. She gave us some food and milk and looked at Mariykas embroidery. She told Mariyka never to thread a needle with three threads, but with two, since the beans would be too fat. Then Mother told me not to roll down hills because I would rip my shirt or hurt my stomach. Young man, dont run around the field all unbuttoned like a wild horse. Sit by Mariykas side and watch the sheep. And I would lie around next to Mother hitting the grass with my heels, and Mother would say, Cant you sit quietly even for a minute? At that moment, a stork landed on the hayfield next to us. Mother took me and sat me on her lap and began to sing:

 

O, stork, dont mow the hay,

Youll get soaked in dew up to your knees.

Leave the mowing to the gull,

Who wears his hat tipped back carefree.

 

He gathered all the strength of his memory to remember the song, but couldnt. His eyes grew sad.

Wait, wait. Mother went home, while I chased the stork until the evening, singing: O, stork, dont mow the hay

Like a boy running to jump across a ditch, he would stop every time he reached that ditch. He repeated the first verse of the song out loud, but couldnt remember the rest. He sighed, and the dark circles around his eyes grew darker.

My God, I cant continue the thread that broke off! It was already breaking when they washed my feet and tore clean foot wrappings out of an old shirt for me, while Father wiped my boots clean. We all wept then, because I was going out into the world to start my studies. And Ive wandered this earth, and bent like a willow branch for a piece of bread, and felt hundreds of haughty eyes looking at me.

He waved his hand, as if to chase those haughty eyes away.

After many years I went to visit my mother. Father was no longer alive. Bent with age, old, with a walking stick in her hands, she sat on the porch of the house, warming herself in the sun. She didnt recognize me at first, but then she greeted me. Son, our Maria has died. I didnt write to you about it because I didnt want to upset you. As she was dying, she kept asking about you. We kept fooling her, saying that you would come. On the day she died, she said that if only she could see you through the window, or just stepping through the door. And she died. Thats how the thread broke.

He was unconsciously speaking the words of the song: O, stork, dont mow the hay

Mother and I went to the cemetery. Mother barely made it. See, son, this is Marias grave. Ive already planted rue and myrtle and had the cross painted, but I havent planted a cherry tree yet  Ill plant one in the fall. We sat by the grave, and Mother told me about Mariyas woes. The husband was wicked, the children were little, in a word, misfortune, poverty. The wind blew white blossoms from the cherry trees. The blossoms fell on the grave and on us. It seemed as though the white blossoms were becoming one with Mothers white hair and their dew was rolling down Mothers face. I was remembering how Mariyka and I would take the sheep to graze

Hot tears fell on the table.

And then Mother died. Mothers grave is not far from Marias. Blossoms from Mothers cherry tree fall on Marias grave, and from Marias cherry tree  on Mothers. Once, I went there. As I sat between the graves, Mothers song came to me again. I no longer knew how it ended. I sat there and then left the mounds. Cherry blossoms that had been lying on the graves floated after me, as though my sister and mother were imploring me, through those blossoms, not to leave.

He paced the room for a long time yet, repeating unconsciously:

 

O, stork, dont mow the hay,

Youll get soaked in dew up to your knees.

Leave the mowing to the gull,

Who wears his hat tipped back carefree.


His stories are often very sad, but they are like poems in prose, touched with poetic gold

Ivan Franko about Vasyl Stefanyk

 

Vasyl Stefanyk was born in the village of Rusiv in Ivano-Frankivsk Region in 1871. He absorbed folk songs, folk tales and legends as he grew up in the countryside.

He was educated at the University of Krakow, Poland. His first essay was published in 1890. His short stories, published in the 1890s and early 20th century, were lyrical and poetic. His later fiction tended to be harshly realistic, reflecting the hard life of Ukrainian peasantry.

When the Bolsheviks came to power in Ukraine, they wanted Stefanyk to be loyal to their regime and even gave him a life pension. Stefanyk turned it down, believing the Great Famine of 19321933 was a genocidal act designed to deliver a devastating blow to the Ukrainian peasantry, which was reluctant to accept Soviet rule.

Vasyl Stefanyk died in 1936 and was buried on a hill near his native village. Soviet propaganda did its best to present him as a writer loyal to the Soviet regime by emphasizing his stark realism and ignoring the profound lyrical and poetic nature of many of his stories.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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