A Forgotten Spot
HOME OF A FORGOTTEN PEOPLE
Ivan's Castle In The Air
IVAN was in high spirits as he climbed the rough and narrow track up the slope of a rounded hill on his way home. He strode along with the firm tread of the hardy highlander who is sure of his ground, but his gait was a bit heavy. He may have been a little tired ; for he had been up with the lark, had made his way over hills and dales to the farm some miles down in a valley, where he had toiled all day long helping to gather in the harvest, and now he was trudging back to the hut in the mountains where he lived.
His limbs may have been weary, but his heart was gay. Tomorrow being Sunday, he would see Marijka again. Lithe, slender, graceful Marijka! There was something mellow and gentle about her features quite unlike the set expression of the rather sturdy lasses of the neighborhood. This and the gay twinkle in her hazel eyes had cast a spell on him. And her engaging smile! It had the freshness of a sunny day in spring, reflecting all the gladness of a simple, cheerful heart. Yet, for all her brightness and joy of life, there was a restraint about her that made Ivan’s heart leap. Even at boisterous gatherings —and in Carpatho-Ukraine people make merry in a noisy fashion she would retain her gentle manner without keeping aloof. Surely, there was no girl like Marijka in the whole of the Verchovina.
Tomorrow he would see her at church. He liked those picturesque gatherings of people dressed in their Sunday best- so colourful and homely. He himself would put on his respectable rig-out -his only one: a clean shirt ornamented on the collar, breast and cuffs with embroidered patterns of red and blue crosses; a pair of white summer pants of homespun material; a greyish jacket, decorated with black cloth, which on hot days he would sling over his shoulder; sandals drawn together by a strap and fastened to the feet by black threads of goat’s hair; a brimmed felt hat. True, his outfit could not compete with that of the better-off men, for his clothes were made of roughly worked hemp, the embroideries were simple and the hat -well, he inherited it from his father. But he used to feel quite proud of himself when parading in front of the church and mixing with the lively crowd.
He did not feel so sure of himself after having fallen in love with Marijka. She looked SO smart-smarter than most of the other girls Instead of the usual skirt of coarse homespun hemp ornamented at the hem with red or dark blue threads of home-made lace, Marijka's skirt was made of fine material bought from a Jewish dealer in Volovec, and so was her lovely black apron fastened above it. Then the embroideries on her blouse- they were of a particularly delicate design. But most beautiful, he thought were the sparkling glass beads sewn on thick and heavy plush. She was the only one in the village who had them.
A happy smile brightened Ivan’s face. He felt in his pocket yes, there it was, the ruby-coloured necklace he had bought in the village where he worked It had taken him some time to save up from his meagre wages the few crowns the necklace cost, but it was worth it. The large rubies should look fine on the gathered front of Marijka's blouse. He took the necklace out of his pocket and fondled it with his eves. He thought of the smile which might light up her charming face. Perhaps, there would even be a kiss. But would she like it?
Lost in thought he reached the brow of the hill. There he paused and his eves were arrested by the scene that confronted him. On the right and left two massive ridges, resembling the backs of petrified mammoths, stretched ahead in the direction of the Polish frontier. Practically no tracks crossed either hillside and no vehicle, not even a peasant’s cart, could reach the wooden huts scattered over them. Hemmed in between the two slopes, a deep valley wound its way towards in more distant hills and crests which rose skyward as far as he could see. This was his native Verchovina—hill upon hill, with narrow strips of fields and grassland thrown in between, some straggling villages far apart, and all this engulfed in endless dark woods.
Overhead the sky was almost cloudless. For some distance the hills, mostly conical in. shape, stood out clearly, their tops unobscured by the rolling clouds which so often envelop them Only the far-off peaks and crests were veiled by fringed clouds
The sun, though very near the horizon, had not yet set its rays, penetrating slantwise were breaking against the sky-line of the western ridge, splitting into countless sparks The top of the hillside opposite was still bathed in light, but a dark shadow, deepened by the sombre tone of the tall firs lay over the valley.
Down below was the village— a long row of low wooden huts with Steep roofs of weather beaten thatch, strung out along a narrow road and clinging to the ground like mush-rooms. Built of brown tree trunks, these humble dwellings looked quite attractive from the spot where Ivan stood, for at that distance one could not see how neglected and dilapidated many of them were. A wooden church, a quaint barn-like structure sheltered on three sides by an arch of tall lime trees stood in their midst on a little mound, as if to watch and guard the scattered flock.
Not far from the church was the cottage where Marijka lived. From the hill Ivan could not see that it was much different from the other huts, hut he knew that at close quarters it was conspicuous by its snug and tidy appearance. The thatched roof, coming down almost to the ground, was in good repair; the walls were of a delightful pattern, for the interstices between the beams were painted a bright blue which was renewed every other year. The touch of a loving feminine hand had left its mark everywhere. The low verandah along the front of the cottage was always well swept, the patch of golden sunflowers was neatly arranged, and the wooden fence of simple upright sticks was intact.
Marijka! Would she marry him? What had he to offer her? His people were very poor, and their hut was a desolate place. A few years back, before the great war, they had lived in better circumstances. True, life was hard enough even then, when he was still a boy; but earnings were not too bad as earnings go in the Verchovina and they did not starve. Every spring, after the thaw had begun in the mountains, his father would sling his axe over his shoulder and would go with a party of other men to Transylvania or Galicia to work in the forests. He would come back in July with money in his pocket and, having cut the grass, he would leave again, this time to help gather in the crops on some farm in the rich Hungarian plain. After the harvest he would return with a few sacks of corn, maize or meal which represented his wages paid in kind. Then, in the autumn, there was some money to he earned in the local woods or in a saw-mill. And so they were able to shift for themselves during the long winter, and sometimes there was money left to buy a few of those cheap luxuries which brighten up life.
The war changed all this. Father was called up to fight for the Emperor. He did not understand the language of the Magyar officers, but orders were orders. And so he served and was killed. Meanwhile, things at home had gone from bad to worse. Mother did her best to eke out a, meagre living from their patch of land, but it was very difficult to feed a family of six. Their only cow was requisitioned by the Hungarian military, and when the money they got for the beast was gone, starvation stared them in the face. They knew days when there was not a piece of oatcake in the house. Gradually, their clothes were reduced to tatters, and their cottage, stripped of most of its furniture, became a hovel.
No, he could not possibly ask Marijka to live in such a place. A few months ago he had not realised quite how wretched their cottage really was. There were many ramshackle huts in the neighbourhood; and, besides, one gets used to everything. But ever since he started working, at Mikita Porovkin’s farm he had become dissatisfied.
What a fine house Mikita had! A proper house, built of solid, smoothly planed tree-trunks, a house with a wooden roof which did not leak and— -with a chimney! It had no less than four rooms. One of them Ivan knew very well. It had a proper white-washed stove of baked earth on which stood large pots full of tasty food; and there were chairs and benches, a large table and a dresser with shelves for plates and dishes. Everything was spick and span, and the room was very bright because sunlight reached the remotest corners through the large window, which had real glass panes. Ivan was often allowed to sit in this room, while being treated to a cup of coffee and fine coffee it was too!
But the other rooms were more beautiful still. Sometimes, when the door was open, he was able to catch a glimpse of the room across the hail, the guest-room, with two large windows. It was simply gorgeous. And the furniture! There was a large table, an imposing chest and several chairs, all beautifully carved, and there were pictures and carvings on the clean, white-washed walls. Then the two rooms at the back! One of them had a stove which was so large that a whole family could easily sleep on top of it in comfort and warmth. But there were beds too, grand beds, full of feather-stuffed pillows and quilts. And the carved chest confirmed -it was said -a wealth of richly embroidered clothes.
Yes, to have a mansion like this, that would be divine. If you had all this, YOU would also be sure to have enough gin to drink and there would be pots of meat, potatoes and cabbage soup and other good things—all cooked with proper salt. Then, having eaten and drunk your fill, you might stretch out on a soft feather-bed or on the warm stove, and listen to the tunes played by gipsy boys or by little angels. How easy it would be to forget all about this hard world where one has to toil and sweat and starve.
Thoughts such as these passed through Ivan's mind as he descended into the valley with quickened, yet measured, pace. The light was already fading when he reached the road. His heavy footsteps, resounding as they crunched on the pebbles and boulders strewn over the road, contrasted strangely with the stillness which was settling on the valley.
There were other odd sounds too— the ceaseless rushing of the turbulent stream, the sudden curt bark of a dog as if challenging and recoiling from the approaching night, a word here and there, a greeting perhaps or a sudden shout, a peal of laughter ringing out and broken off abruptly, the bang of a door somewhere, a short-lived stir in the leaves, the screech of an owl, the flapping of wings by an invisible bird-all dissolving into the pervading lullaby of the night.
Little flames started leaping up in the valley, lighting the tiny windows of the huts as Ivan went by. The steep rooks, rising chimneyless almost from the ground, stood out dark against the evening sky. Only a faint haze of smoke now trickled through whatever openings it could find in the roots and • lingered over them softening their sombre contours. Passing the church with its three square domes, which loomed impressively in the gathering dusk, Ivan headed for the wood, a few hundred yards beyond the village, which he had to cross in order to reach the hut where he lived on the hillside.
The sheltering darkness of the wood inspired a new feeling in him. There was no sound here but the gentle whisper of the swaying tree-tops or the occasional cracking of a twig when he stepped on it. From this softly rustling melody, pulsating with subdued, but irrepressible life, he drew fresh confidence and strength. He was a man of the woods, he was born in them, and now that the war was over they would enable him to make a decent living. He knew that the Czechs, who had taken over Carpatho-Ukraine from the Hungarians, were engaging men for forest work, and there was a rumour that a forest railway was to be built to get the felled trees down to the lowland. Several lads from his village were already earning fair wages as wood-cutters. After the harvest he was going to join them or apply for work in a saw-mill. Then he should be able to marry all right. And should all go well he might later on become a regular forest-keeper with a fixed salary and the right to a pension.
Inspired by the hope of such wealth Ivan quickened his pace as he walked homeward up the slope. After a while he reached the humble dwelling and stepped into the yellow light of the living room. It was little more than a potting shed. In the corner by the door an open log fire burnt brightly, and over it a large pot was simmering. A thick pall of smoke hung under the ceiling, making the room look lower than it really was. Along the walls a few pieces of makeshift furniture were placed haphazardly -a sort of plank-bed with a heap of rugs on it, a parch of dirty straw on the bare earth, a rough wooden bench under the window ‘with a table of plain, unstained pine, and a large primitive chest, which was used as a wardrobe as well as a scat. Such was the room which he shared with his mother, his brother and his two sisters who were still at home. With a pile of wood b) the fire and a heap of potatoes next to it, the place was kitchen, living room larder and bedroom in one.
Before supper he pottered about in the adjoining room which served as shed, store-room and hen-coop. Then he joined the family at the meal, a simple affair of potatoes dipped in salt water, of sour milk and oatcake. He was in no mood to talk and supper passed in silence.
For hours through the night he could not sleep. Restlessly he tossed about on his patch of straw, thinking of Marijka. Should he propose to her tomorrow when he took her home after the dance? Anyway, he might tell her that he was going to build himself a brand-new house, a fine house of solid logs, the interstices made wind-proof with moss and day and painted bright blue, and a verandah running all along the front, with little carved pillars supporting the overhanging roof. Marijka, who knew how to use paint and brush, might decorate the walls with a regular pattern of link circles and crosses-he had seen a cottage like that in another village, many miles away, where his father had once taken him when he was a boy. His new house would have a chimney and there would be two rooms, a guest—room, which would be kept clean like the one in Mikita's house, to be used on special occasions only, and a living room with a proper stove which would not fill the air with smoke. He was not yet sure, though, how he would get all the furniture, but they would manage somehow A few pieces he might make himself: a table a bench and a bed. Marijka might get a nicely carved chest, a rack with wooden spoons, a spinning wheel and, perhaps, a chair or two as her dowry, and lie would buy an odd piece later on when he had saved a little money.
Yes, it would be lovely to come back from work to such a home, to Marijka. who would greet him with her sweet smile Then he would watch her bending over the pots her lovely hair hanging down her back in two neat plaits with strands of coloured wool worked in them. After supper she might sit by the spinning-wheel., caressed the thread with her deft fingers. And in a year or so there might be a cradle in the room and Marijka would sing the baby to sleep humming a soft tune. It sent a thrill through him as he thought of taking her by the hand, stroking her smooth hair and clasping her in a passionate embrace.
He stirred on his makeshift mat, drew up the rugs with which he was covered and wrapped them, more tightly about him, A high wind had started to blow, and now it penetrated right inside the hut through many fissures and gaps, shaking the frail building to its foundations. “I must stop the holes tomorrow Ivan thought to himself “The new house I’m going to build must be wind-proof.”
Outside, rain began to fall. At first it rained softly so softly that Ivan noticed it only by the heavier rustling of the wet leaves. He listened to the soothing rhythm which lulled him back to the happy mood of his dream, and he heard again the whirring and tapping of Marijka’s spinning— wheel and her soft humming.
Then the drops came down more and more heavily until they were beating a tattoo on the sodden soil and the agitated leaves.
Drip! And after a while again: drip
Ivan started up on his patch of straw. “Oh, blast! There's a leak in the roof. I'll have to see to that too."
His vision was gone.
Ivan glanced round the room. It was desolate murky arid cold. In the fireplace there was still a faint gleam—but this, too, would soon go out.
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