At 11.30am, home is eight hours away and my bones are sitting so heavy in my skin that I struggle to see how this plane will take off. For four hours in the sky, from Kyiv to Lviv, I dream intermittently of pianos tumbling out of windows. For four by train from Lviv to Kvasy I dream of the soft creak of a falling fruit tree. My first words to everyone once their hugs and cheek-kisses have ushered me through the door are ‘Where am I sleeping?’
‘Your room’s all ready, dear’, says my Dad.
‘For once’, Artem adds.
I smile and fake-curtsey to Dad, then to my little brother. ‘Thank you, Tato. Thank you, brato.’
In the kitchen alone after my sleep I lift the cling film from the stew my Grandma has plated up. The hot, sour waft of sauerkraut and tomato and the earthy salt of thick kovbasa sausage hit my sinuses in all the wrong ways. I wrap it back up and push it away. Through the window the garden is arranging itself for the night. The last rock sparrow hops between twilight streams up to his nest, folds his chubby corn-coloured beak into himself for comfort. He sits in the Pysanka tree and I realise that it is bare save for a few brazen shoots, already showing their distinctive stripes at just a few weeks old. Its fruit, already picked, sits indoors on the sideboard preparing for its moment at the table. This tree only claims youthful names; humbug pear or Pysanka, named after the painted wax eggs we decorate for Easter.
A memory unfolds as I sit. Winter had finished. Artem and I were six and eight, watching Mum and Grandma make a performance of picking the ripe pears, wielding cloths and water, pretending to spray and polish the fruits to a proud sheen. Acting out a tussle between themselves and the branches refusing to let go of their gems, both lost balance and fell on their backsides, eyes streaming and sides splitting.
This night ends and the rituals of the season seem to tumble ahead with force.
On Sunday we decorate the house with willow branches, a blend of Christian and ancient Pagan tradition, holy and earthly energy. Never mind there isn’t exactly an abundance of palm trees in a Ukrainian mountain early Spring. The next three days we create, make everything plentiful and fill the house with a competition of smells. On Tuesday I am home from a trip to the store, reviewing my haul and reading the recipe Grandma has given me for Paska, sweet bread, over and over. Another memory arrives; I was twelve in the quiet house. Mum and Grandma were kneading and rolling when Dad crept in, tickled Mum’s sides and whispered a dark blue joke. Grandma overheard and the pure thoughts they were supposed to hold as they baked flew out of their heads in suppressed giggles. ‘Babka’, I had asked, ‘we suck at these traditions. Why do we keep them up?’
Grandma gave me a brief history of oppressive Soviet rule then, noting my drooping eyelids added, ‘Remember when Artem ripped the head off your teddy bear?’
‘And how I stitched it back on with sparkly thread so it looked like it was wearing a pretty necklace?’
‘And you called it your princess bear and carried it around with you all the time and wouldn’t go to sleep without it?’
‘When someone takes something of yours away, you cling onto what is left even tighter. It becomes even more precious.’
On this Tuesday afternoon I stare at the saffron, vanilla, rum, cloves, cherries, honey, wondering how I will stuff everything good into this bread when I am hollow, how I will think pure, clean thoughts when everything is muddied.
Another memory scurries past. Me, second year, nursing the sore head, stinging vulva and flutters of nausea native to my Sunday mornings. A phone call from Dad, an unusually long pause. Me, so busy bracing myself for the announcement of divorce that I barely registered the word tumour and the list of treatment she was to endure swam through my thoughts too fast like film credits.
The humbug pears are in the corner of my eye now, bursting out of themselves, dainty green and dusty pink stripes running down the sides like lava. I take one in my hand. Before I know what I’m doing I am smashing it against the surface, crashing it down again and again, scraping my knuckles. Their skins are tough and take a while to split, flesh becomes mush and collapses on itself, juices spatter. Grandma comes running down to see the noise. She holds me. She takes the ruined pear out of my hand and replaces it with a fresh one. ‘Eat’, she says.
‘These are for Sunday,’ I say. ‘They haven’t been blessed yet.’
She pushes my hand to my mouth. ‘Eat. You can’t grieve on an empty stomach.’
On Thursday we scrub the house and ourselves clean. On Friday and Saturday we do very little besides conserve our energy. At midnight on Saturday we go to mass and the voices of the choir unlock something, I feel small, unimportant and relieved. The four of us come home and fill ourselves up. For the next six days we cook, eat, walk, read, discuss, bicker, wash, eat, cook, and eat.
When the only day of Easter I was ready for arrives, I am shy. My hands shake as I bend to lower the heavy basket to the ground. Atop parcels of potato pancakes, butter, cheese, Pysanka eggs and leftover crusts, sit five humbug pears, vivid, mischievous. I want to stay kneeling, to clutch the perfect grey stone, trace my fingers over the inscription and howl for Kateryna Bandera, 1975 – 2019, daughter, wife, mother. Instead I stand, link arms with my family and look out at all the other families greeting their own ancestors.
Natasha Derczynski is a writer and Healthcare Assistant living in Berkshire, England. She studied a Creative Writing BA and MA at Brunel University London, completing her first dissertation under the supervision of Man Booker Prize winner Bernardine Evaristo. She will write about anything if she can make it weird enough, but tends towards complex female leads chasing fulfilment, love and ambition in the tangled mess we call modern life. Image: Pears on the Branches, Zinaida Serebriakova (1930)