This time last year I was high in the Carpathian mountains in west Ukraine. I’d been listening to sad and fascinating family stories that are not just stories, from the woman who is and is not Lesya, and thinking I should write them down somehow.
They were not just stories, although they felt like it to me a year ago. This now is not exactly a story either.
I went to the village market early, down by the bridge where the icy river rushes along its bed of pale pebbles. The bridge was still in the shade, the sun not yet clear of the pine-green, copper-green mountains.
The woman who sells there glass jars of bilberries sat as always in her faded apron, her daughter at her side – and this morning the woman was weeping and wailing, her salty tears running down into the jars. The little girl fiddled with the apron strings with fingers berry-stained blue, and said sternly, stop crying, Mama. Stop it.
There was no need to ask why she was crying. But in the Russian she learned at school, peppered with words from Ukrainian, Hungarian, Slovak and Romanian, the woman told me anyway.
Yesterday she was out on the polyana, the high Carpathian mountain pasture where the village sheep flocks wander all summer. She looked up from the bilberry bushes and watched the animals feeding on the steep slopes, like a handful of white and brown beads scattering from a broken string.
This was what her great-grandfather saw each summer, here on these same mountains, before he was taken off to serve in the Austro-Hungarian army in 1914 and never came back. This is what her grandfather saw, before he was mobilised in 1938 by the Czechoslovak army, and what, via Hungarian, German and Soviet armies, he at last came home to.
This is what she grew up with, this woman I’ll call Lesya. Her husband grew up with it; their daughter will grow up with it, maybe, although this traditional way of life is dying out at last and anyway Lesya wants something better for their daughter: Europe, travel, civilization, not smelly sheep on high pastures and a hard struggle for existence that hasn’t changed for centuries.
That doesn’t stop Lesya thinking it’s the most beautiful and precious thing in the world; it is her world, her country, these sheep strung out over the green mountainside, the crystal air flush with their bleating and their ringing collar bells.
She watched the sheep, and then she turned back to picking bilberries because her husband’s pay as a mobilised soldier in the Ukrainian army isn’t much. As well as jar-fulls at the market she can sell berries by the kilo to traders, who haul them off in refrigerated lorries to far-away Kyiv, maybe even to where her husband is now in further-away east Ukraine, a world she’s never seen though it is part of her country too, apparently.
You already know how the rest of this story goes. While Lesya was picking bilberries, her husband was killed yesterday in that far-off East Ukraine war. She came home in the evening down the familiar paths to the village, when the news was already old. Early this morning she walked to market to sell those berries she was picking at the time her husband died, because what else can she do?
And I bought them, because what else could I do? I bought the glass jar they were in too, for much more money than it is worth. I hold it in my hands now, full of tears stained berry blue, as I listen to that stern little girl’s voice saying, stop crying, stop it.