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Closer to God

 

The population of the village of Kuzhbyi, which is situated in Zakarpattya, high up in the Carpathian Mountains, consists of two elderly sisters; the village boasts a church. The sisters take care of themselves, of their house and of the village church. We may be far from civilization, they say, but we are close to God. Olena KRUSHYNSKA paid a visit to the village and to the two elderly ladies to find out more about their life.

 

On the way to the village

General maps do not show the village only very detailed topographic maps of Zakarpattya indicate its location, not far from the village of Soymy. In small letters, in brackets, you can read (nezhytl) near the name of the village that is, no one living there.

A friend of mine and I drove to Soymy along the road that meanders through a highly scenic landscape from Volovets to Mizhgirya. Picturesque villages graced with churches flickered by, but we did not stop to have a closer look, our destination being Kuzhbyi (I had heard about this village and its only two inhabitants from a friend). The area we were in is known as Zakarpattyas Verkhovyna.

As we approached Soymy, we spotted a chimerical bright red structure that stood on a hill. From a distance it seemed to be a sort of gigantic honeycomb that stood upright. As we got closer, we saw that the imagined honeycomb cells were in reality balconies. The weird structure proved to be a sanatoriy a rest and health-improvement center, though in my eyes it rather appeared to be a creation of aliens in a Sci-Fi film. It produced an impression of being a poster of the beautiful Carpathians with a digitally built in incongruous structure.

In Soymy, we, spotting a man digging in a vegetable garden, stopped to ask directions to Kuzhbiy. The man of an indeterminate age but evidently past his prime, said, You want to get to Kuzhbyi in that car of yours? No way. Only on foot up and up and up.

But is it a long climb?

Well, another mile by car, and then on foot a good two or three miles. His reckoning of distances turned out to be very different from the standard international measures. We left the car at the outskirts of Soymy, found the trail that had been indicated to us, and set out on our journey.

Soon we discovered that the man from the garden must have meant nautical miles. The trail had many forks and we kept losing the right track, walking into thickets with fallen trees lying across the trail, or got onto the trails that definitely led in a wrong direction.

A field of wild strawberries by the side of the path slowed down our ascent still further we could not help stopping and spending some time picking and eating the delicious strawberries. We were so engrossed in the small feast of the palate that we did not hear a herd of several dozen long-haired goats approach. The goats would be fun but they were guided and protected by white, pilose dogs. The dogs looked almost like toys but we knew from experience that such dogs were really ferocious. They were very good at herding and protecting goats but if they suspected any potential danger to their wards they would attack. We froze, squatting among the berries, hoping the goatherd would appear at any moment. The growling dogs stared at us menacingly and we sheepishly smiled back.

Mercifully, the goatherd did turn up shortly and chased away the dogs. Naturally we asked for directions as we were absolutely not sure whether we were on the right track.

You want to get to Kuzhbyi? To visit the girls? Youve taken the wrong turn and he began to explain how to get to the village by the shortest route. Seeing that we looked uncertain, swamped by too many details, he was kind enough to walk us part of the way.

We asked the goatherd, among other things, about wolves for the sake of making a conversation rather than in a serious inquiry. The goatherd, quite unexpectedly, said in the tone of dead seriousness, Of course, there are wolves in these woods!

Do they cause any trouble? Steal goats or sheep?

They surely would do that but what are these dogs for?

A couple of the dogs followed us several paces behind us, still suspicious of strangers, ready to pounce at the first command of the goatherd.

After we parted company and continued on our own, we hoped that we were real close to our destination as the goatherd had said. But his close was as ambiguous as those couple of miles of the man in the garden in Soymy. Minutes ticked off, but our destination was not in sight even after we had been on the way for close to an hour. And what was worse we again seemed to have lost the way. And again someone appeared to show us the right direction or rather lead us part of the way. It was a middle-aged, robust man who was on his way to the grazing sheep in the mountain meadows. Follow me, he said briskly and went ahead. We did follow but it was not easy. He walked at a fast pace as though he were walking on asphalted flat ground and we scrambled after him as best as we could. The climb was rather steep, the path was uneven. After some time, hearing our wheezing behind him and turning to see our red and sweaty faces, he slowed down. He even asked whether we would like to take a rest. We proudly refused, saying we were doing fine.

At one point, he left the path and turned into the thicket to follow a track which we would never discover ourselves. Its a shortcut, said the man who evidently decided to take pity on us. But the shortcut proved to be a longcut with boulders, fallen trees and prickly scrub for us to negotiate.

At long last we arrived at a clearing and the man pointed to the mountain crest some distance away and still up, not down. Between the crest and the place where we stood we saw the green slope all studded with innumerable sheep and a lot of dogs.

Our guide, seeing our hesitation, said that we should have good sticks to chase away the dogs and help us in walking. He produced a big knife, chose branches that would make good sticks, deftly cut them off, stripped them of everything that would be redundant on a stick, and handed the sticks to us.

Thus armed we braved the slope skirting the herd and the dogs who kept a watchful eye on us. But the dogs did not think it was a good idea to have strangers prowling around and they raised a barking racket, aggressively following us and unambiguously showing us they were ready to attack. I got quite jittery; my companion put on a brave face and said there was nothing to worry about but then the shepherds saw our plight and chased the dogs away.

When we at last reached the crest, we were amply awarded by the most wonderful panorama of the forested mountains that opened before us. And the village was there too, displayed as though on a painting on the slope in front of us.

We knew that there were only two people living in the village and we were greatly surprised to see a man with a shotgun, an amorous couple in the shade of a tree and several other people loitering around. It was a Sunday and some people from Soymy and other places must have taken a stroll to this secluded picturesque place apparently not intimidated by the distance which seemed long for us but not for them who were accustomed to climbing the slopes.

As the man with shotgun passed by, we greeted him, and he greeted us back. He asked how we were doing and whether we were not afraid to be wandering about the mountains on your own. I asked in return whether there was anything to be afraid of. He smiled reassuringly and said, No, no, there is not. Have a good day! and he moved on.

 

The abandoned village

The village sits in terraces on the slope; its vegetable and fruit gardens are so overgrown with weeds and stray trees that at first glance it is difficult to make out terraces on which these gardens are situated. The dilapidating houses are not easy to spot either. Above all this desolation ennobled by the lush greenery there stands a pretty wooden church under a roof of wooden shingles.

There were notes of sadness that sounded loud and clear in this symphony of wilderness overcoming what was human habitation not so long in the past, and they made the panorama in front of us one of the most beautiful Id ever seen.

It did not take us long to find the two inhabitants of the village. Or rather, it was they who spotted us first. When we walked around the church, one of the women emerged from their house which, as it turned out, was located several hundred feet away from the church, and walked closer to take a better look. She stood some distance away, peering at us from under her hand which she held like a visor over her eyes. Shortly, she was joined by her sister and two small brown dogs that wiggled their bushy tails in a welcoming manner.

We walked over to them and introduced ourselves. Conversation developed all by itself, effortlessly. The younger sister, Kalyna, 53, was the principle talker but her older sibling, Hanna, 67, joined in once in a while too not by words though but gestures and affirmative or negative inarticulate sounds. Hanna is deaf and dumb but can read the lips of interlocutors.

From what Kalyna told us, it appeared that the village was a very old one. The founder of the village was a man called Medvid (Bear) who had two daughters one of whom was eaten by wolves (I could not help remembering my asking the goatherd about wolves).

In more recent times, the population of the village, which used to have a school, a store and a community center, began to shrink due to deaths and people leaving in search of a better life.

When Kalyna said that there used to be bus service to the village too, I raised my brows in disbelief. She confirmed her statement, Yes, buses came and went regularly. There were three roads two connected us with Soymy and one with the village of Maydan. But being mountain roads, they needed regular maintenance, and rains, snow avalanches and landslides gradually destroyed them.

In the 1980s, when there were already but a few people left living in Kuzhbyi, the electric lines were cut down by wire poachers, then the poles went down and since then there has been no electricity in our village. Some of the houses which were made of logs were taken apart and carted away by their owners, others were left to fall apart.

Both Kalyna and Hanna were born in Kuzhbyi. Kalyna was the youngest in the family of ten children. She has been lame since she started to walk she was born with one leg shorter than the other. Kalyna was educated at the local school but soon after graduation her eyesight began to worsen and she was forced to wear very powerful glasses. Her sister Hanna was born deaf and dumb; neither of them ever married.

They own about five acres of land in Kuzhbyi. They used to make hay to sell but they cant do it any longer not enough strength left. They grow vegetables, gather berries, mushrooms and nuts and thus live off the land. Once in a while, the husband of one of their sisters, who lives elsewhere, brings some products and other things that they may need. Once a month Hanna goes down to Soymy to draw their pensions Kalyna cannot walk long distances.

 

Life in the abandoned village

Their new house is a tiny one but sports a relatively new slate roof. An uncertain but rather long time ago their old house became uninhabitable and collapsed, and they bought, for a pittance, another one where they live now. Its a one-room house, and the room is big enough only for two beds, a stove and a table. The clothes are kept in leather bags there is no room for closets.

There is a small barn near the house which is inhabited by a calf and a pig. The sisters used to have a cow but after it had stopped giving milk they got rid of it. When I asked why the sisters did not keep chickens, Kalyna explained that they had tried to keep them, but foxes took care of them in their own manner.

The sisters used to have a Stone-Age television set but after the village lost the power supply, the set became quite useless. Their only means of getting current news is a radio set that uses batteries; once a month a postman brings several issues of the local paper Poradnytsya. The sisters have been provided some time ago with a cell phone and an electrical power generator that uses gasoline the generator is good enough only for recharging the cell phones battery, hardly for anything else.

Before we had gotten to Kuzhbyi and talked to the sisters, I had expected to see two old, decrepit, helpless and lonely women but the sisters turned out to be full of life and being quite able to take care of themselves in spite of all their disabilities. I have not heard a single word of complaint. The sisters did not lament their plight, they did not curse the authorities for failing to help them in any way, they did not wring their hands over how life had treated them so unfairly.

Kalyna talked about their everyday life and difficulties the sisters faced only when she answered our direct questions, and generally preferred to make philosophical observations about life and the sisters place in general, one could say existential terms. I do not ask anybody for help, I dont ask people for anything except one thing they should leave us alone and mind their own business. But if someone does hurt my feelings or does any harm to us, I do not bear any grudges. God sees everything and will punish the wrongdoers.

When I inquired what kind of harm she meant, Kalyna told me that there had been attempts to rob them and once they did have some of their money and some of their things stolen from their house in their absence. Once, a drunken man hit Hanna hard on the leg and she had to have an X-ray taken but luckily the leg was not broken and the injury got healed.

How often do you see people? I asked. Does it feel lonely when there is no one around only the two of you?

People do come here once in a while. Tourists, artists, journalists, shepherds and strangers, probably just curious to take a look. People bring us bread and other food. Films are shot, journalists ask questions and take pictures. And on Ivana Kupala (July 7, Feast of St John which coincides with the ancient mid-summer pagan feast; its the only feast day, St John being the patron saint of Kuzhbui, on which the service is held in this village) we have quite a few people coming. We open the church, the priest, Father Ivan, comes and conducts a service. We cook something and treat the guests, and they bring something to eat and share too.

Kalyna and Hanna offered to open the church for us too and we accepted the kind offer. Hanna took the keys and led the way to the church. We were enthusiastically followed by the two dogs.

The Church of the Assumption of the Holy Mother of God is a small wooden building that was erected in 1937 by the local Orthodox Christian community. The design is typical for the local churches of this type. As the population of the village gradually shrank, there was no one able-bodied enough left to provide some maintenance and the church was in danger of dilapidation. Luckily, in the early 1990s, a group of students from the Art College in Uzhgorod repaired the roof and the spire, and painted icons for the iconostasis. Several years later, the local authorities found means and people to get the church fully restored and since then the services are held every year on July 7.

As we walked into the church, Hanna made a sign of the cross over herself and bowed. The cozy, neat church was decorated with icons and decorative towels. We were allowed to ascend the bell tower where instead of bells we saw old natural gas tanks with the bottoms cut off.

There used to be real bells but these were long gone, pilfered for scrap metal. As far as we could understand from Hannas gesticulation and mimics, she liked the sound (she must have felt vibrations when the bells were rung) of the old bells and did not care for the makeshift bells.

The sisters waved to us as we were leaving until we walked out of sight.

The two lonely sisters do get written about in the local press and in the all-Ukraine papers as well; once in a while they get into the TV news shows. They appear in the final episode of the art house film, Vykradennya Evropy (Rape of Europe) by the Ukrainian director Petro Pomerantsev.

 

The wooden church was built in 1937 in a traditional style.

 

 

The way the village of Kuzhbui and its environs look now make it difficult to believe that in not too distant past there used to be a regular bus service to the village, to which now you can get only on foot, or maybe on horseback.

 

The two sisters Hanna and Kalyna go to church every Sunday.

 

Sisters Hanna and Kalyna, the only inhabitants of the village of Kuzhbyi which officially does not exist any longer, are always happy to talk to the rare visitors to their non-existent village.

 

Kalyna talking to the authors friend, Vladimir.

 

Sheep grazing in the picturesque grass and wild flowers vicinity of the village.

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