Pat Seman – A Ukrainian Easter

Pat Seman
A Ukrainian Easter
                                                    Chernivtsi, March, 2010

The first promise of spring came with groups of women in boots and thick coats huddled at street corners, selling tiny bunches of snowdrops and frail, wild crocuses, stems wrapped in their dark green leaves and tied with a thin thread.
      But the snow continued to fall. Followed by the inevitable thaw with its frozen slush, streaming gutters and giant icicles falling with a crash from eaves and balconies to shatter on the pavement. Then snow again, its big fat flakes settling on my collar, in my hair, on the robed shoulders of the archbishop’s statue in the cathedral garden, drifting through the streets and onto roofs, softening the city’s contours.
      Until one morning I woke to bright sunshine and clear blue skies, opened the door onto a balcony miraculously clear of ice and snow. I checked the thermometer. The temperature had shot up to 18C. The air was warm, caressing.
      Out and onto the streets, where people no longer hurried by heads down, wrapped against the cold. Young women shed of their winter furs and boots, strolled by, their long legs on full display in short skirts, some with bare midriffs. And prams, whole battalions of them, pushed by mothers, fathers, grandparents, bringing baby out for its first airing. Young lovers occupied benches which for so long had been covered in ice. Beside them groups of babushkas in slippers and thick, rumpled stockings, and old men with their caps and their wry, lined faces; all drinking up the sun.
      Now that the snow and ice had gone the streets were a grim grey, the buds on the trees still tightly closed, the earth dry and tired. In the gardens of Theatre Square groups of women were bent over spades, digging and turning over the soil, whilst all over town there was a sudden buzz of activity. Carpets were hung out on washing lines in courtyards and gardens, sparkling clean windows thrown open to let in the fresh spring air.
      At school most of my students and colleagues were either fasting or on a diet and all the talk was about about making a trip to the bazaar – the huge, sprawling Kameninsky market on the outskirts of town. For Easter was fast approaching and with it, so they told me, the tradition of wearing a new set of clothes on Easter Day to celebrate this moment of rebirth and new beginnings.
     And before I knew it March had almost gone by and we were into Holy Week, or Willow Week as it’s known in Ukraine, a time of preparation and purification when the whole house has to be cleaned, the village houses whitewashed, gardens planted, in preparation for Easter, the most important festival of the year.
     It begins with Willow Sunday and the ceremony of the blessing of the willow, a practice stemming back to pagan times when the willow with its healing properties was a holy tree and one of the first in Spring to show signs of life; when people believed that by tapping each other with a freshly blooming willow branch they could draw upon its energy and strength.
     There was no sign of tapping at church that morning, simply an enormous crowd of people, everyone clutching pussy willow branches and pressing forward into an already packed church. Once inside, squeezed like a sardine and peering over a sea of shoulders, I could see nothing of the ceremony. But the singing was sublime; as one voice emerged, strong and deep, rising with an ever-increasing sense of urgency, till at its peak it melted into a sea of harmony, one with the rich, sonorous tones of the choir.
     Then, abruptly, service over, the congregation turned and I was carried with them, as inch by inch we shuffled and stumbled our way out into the pouring rain.
     The girls in my English classes told me that they were making pysanky, the beautiful traditional painted eggs for which Ukraine is famous. Decorated with stylised symbols from Nature they were said to contain powerful magic, a protection against evil and natural disaster. Once they were painted by women only, in secret, when the children had gone to bed. For centuries the tradition was handed down from mother to daughter, only to be banned as a religious practice under the Soviet regime. It was the Ukrainians in the Diaspora that ensured its survival. I know that my grandmother took the skill with her when she emigrated to Canada.
      Now the girls have lessons at school in dyeing and decorating pysanky. In the weeks before Easter you see these decorated eggs everywhere. They come in many colours – orange and red, yellow, green and deep blue. Often the patterns are geometrical or with spiral motifs, but there are also motifs of birds, flowers and animals. One I saw was encircled with a chain of young women dancing. Pysanky represent the gift of life.
      On the evening before Easter Sunday, they’re placed in a wicker basket of food, which is taken to the midnight mass to be blessed. In my cousin Masha’s basket, they lay together with the traditional assortment of food: baked ham, smoked sausage, horseradish, butter, sweet cheese and rye bread, all covered by a white embroidered cloth. And a paska or Easter bread, a round, sweet loaf, decorated with motifs of crosses, plants and flowers to celebrate nature’s rebirth.
      Masha explained that the paska must be made with great care. When preparing the dough and during the kneading you must keep your thoughts pure and the whole household quiet to ensure the bread rises. No-one, not even friends and neighbours, are allowed to come in during its baking lest they make a sudden noise or cast the evil eye and it comes out flat.
      We arrived at the cathedral about an hour before midnight. Masha gave me a candle from her basket, then we both put on our scarves and joined a throng of women jostling to get in through the door. Inside they parted to leave a clear passage down to the altar, placing their baskets on either side of the aisle ready for the priest’s blessing. We stood on the cold stone floor one with the crowd of worshippers as the deep voices of priest and choir intoned the solemn liturgy. The sequin-sewn white scarves of the congregation glimmered and glittered in the soft candle light, while over their heads in the shadows near the altar hung the life- size figure of Christ on the Cross surrounded by a mass of deep red carnations.
      A stirring, a murmur of expectation. Heads turned as men entered carrying banners. Masha, checking her watch, muttered that it was already gone midnight. We stood waiting patiently as the priest continued his incantation. Suddenly all the chandeliers went on in a blaze of electric light. Red letters spelling CHRISTOS VOSKRES, CHRIST IS RISEN flashed above the altar. A procession of nine priests resplendent in white and gold followed by the choir led us out of the cathedral, the bells pealing wildly. Our candles lit, we circled the cathedral three times singing, stopping every so often to roar out a reply to the priest’s call ‘Christos Voskres, Voistinu Voskrese,’ ‘He is indeed risen!’
      At six in the morning my husband Jaap and I joined Masha and her family as they broke their fast. All the food from the basket, which had been blessed by the priest at the cathedral, was spread out on the table. We each had a krashanka, a hard-boiled egg dyed red, with which we went into a battle to crack everyone else’s. It was Masha’s husband Vasili who came out victorious, egg intact, his face creased into a big smile. As we drove back home through the early morning mist, the streets were still full of people carrying home their baskets and flickering candles; the aim being to bring the flame safely home and with it to trace a figure of the Cross on the lintel of your house. Mine had gone out in a gust of wind within minutes of leaving the cathedral.
      Later in the day the mist turned to bright sunshine. The unpaved road to Vasyliv, my grandmother’s village, was shiny with puddles and mud. Fields stretched either side of us empty and grey, but in the village the freshly dug earth in the gardens was a rich, dark brown, covered here and there in a haze of green. We arrived to the clanging of bells, passed a group of boys pulling and swinging from the ropes in the small bell tower by the church gate.
      We found Bohdan, my Dad’s cousin, in his garden, smart in a bright blue shirt that matched the colour of his eyes. Behind him the two-story redbrick house stood newly plastered, gleaming under a coat of white paint.
      ‘Welcome to the White House!‘ he said with a grin.
      Released from weeks of fasting , he was in fine spirits. He told us we’d just missed the big meal with all his family. But no matter, the table was filled within minutes by Nelya, his wife, bringing dish after dish as Bohdan reached for the vodka bottle with a cry of ‘Cossack!’
      It was time to move on. Vasylina sent a message she was waiting for us. Yet another member of my large Ukrainian family, she lives just across the dirt lane from Bohdan’s house. We found her stretched out on the bed under a red woven coverlet. Next to her a table spread in our honour with hard-boiled eggs, potato salad, smoked sausage and a large jam jar of home-made raspberry juice. Struggling out of bed, she reached for her stick and stood before us in all her Easter finery—a shiny, gold blouse and bright floral headscarf. She insisted on serving us, hobbling back and forth from the kitchen with plates of borsch made with vegetables and nettles plucked from her garden.
      Then a phone call from Masha asking us to come to her father Georg’s house. We arrived to find Masha with her parents, Vasili, their son Pavel, and Masha’s brother, all bunched together on two beds around a small table, which was crammed to overflowing with dishes of rich, home-grown food. Vasili told us that he was going steady on the vodka as he was saving himself for the next day,‘Wet Monday’, when he and his friends would hit the streets to douse the women passing by with water. Yet another old custom rooted in pre-Christian rites of purification and rebirth, and one which, according to Masha, is practised with an unbridled enthusiasm.
      ‘Never mind’, she said, ‘on Tuesday it’ll be the women’s turn’.
      She described to us how, when she was young, on Easter morning, she and the other village girls would dance and sing in front of the church. Round and round in a circle they’d go in imitation of the movement of the sun, to encourage the earth to bring them a plentiful harvest.
      Masha invited us to come back to the village the following weekend to share in the family’s honouring of their dead. It’s part of the ritual of Easter when for nine days the spirits of the ancestors are believed to return to earth. Families gather at their graves where they eat and drink together, so that the dead too may take part in the celebration of Easter; the idea being that the ghosts of the dead are always with us, that the border between life and death is as permeable as a cloud.
      Driving out of Chernivtsi towards my family’s village we saw heaps of plastic purple and pink wreaths for sale at the side of the road. People were walking along the verge with these large wreaths slung over their shoulders or on the handle bars of their bikes. We stopped at a large cemetery outside a village where so many wreaths had been laid or propped against headstones you could hardly see the graves. Between them, wooden tables and benches had been set out as for a party. The sky was sullen with dark clouds threatening rain, the cemetery empty, except for a man and a woman and two children who were sitting at a table next to their ancestor’s grave, quietly eating and drinking. Out of respect we kept our distance, but immediately they spotted us they sent over the young boy with a paska and a pysanka. The bread was ornamented with a cross made of dough, the four arms curved at their tips as if about to spin into motion—an ancient symbol of the sun, the seasons, the wheel of life.
      The cemetery in Vasyliv is quite different to the one we’d just visited with its trimmed grass and shiny headstones engraved with life-like portraits of the deceased. In Vasyliv the cemetery lies at the centre of the village, a large field full of stone crosses, many of them ancient, some all but toppling over in the long grass. All was quiet, the cemetery nearly empty.
      We trudged through the mud and wet grass in search of Masha and her family. She’d promised to take me to our great-grand-parents’ graves and say some prayers for them on my behalf. We found her at the edge of the cemetery with Vasili, their son Pavel, and Vasili’s mother. They were gathered round Vasili’s father’s grave. His mother was in tears. Vasili came to us and solemnly handed us a paska, an orange and some chocolates in memory of his father.
      The spot where my great grandparents lie buried is marked by two stone crosses. They stand side by side, leaning slightly towards one another, not far from a border of tall, sheltering trees. My great grandmother Vasylina’s cross stands on the left, and on the right, that of my great grandfather, Vasil. Their surfaces are so worn that it’s impossible to trace an inscription. The arms of each cross are faintly decorated with flower patterns and at the centre of Vasil’s, still clearly engraved, is a wreath of flowers, symbol of Mother Earth.
      Masha and I stood silently at the graves of our great-grandparents. It started to rain. We returned to her parents’ house, where Georg and his family were waiting for us to join in yet another feast of food, vodka, laughter and celebration.
      When we left, Masha gave me one red carnation. It had been blessed in a service of remembrance of the dead, the village ancestors. It hangs now, dry and drained of colour, at home, above my desk.
Amsterdam, April 2022
      My thoughts are constantly with my family and friends in Ukraine. It’s three years now since we last saw them. First Covid, now the invasion by Russia. I keep in touch with them mainly by WhatsApp:
11th April
      From Tanya, my friend and ex-colleague at the language school in Chernivtsi: ‘Sorry for not writing for a long time. Sometimes I don’t know what to answer to the question how we are. Compared to the eastern part of Ukraine we are fine. But it’s not a proper word. We are alive. But it’s so painful we can’t even think of anything else. You know Chernivtsi is the safest place right now but who knows for how long. We have many refugees from other regions, People live in schools and sleep on the floor in corridors and everyday more and more people are coming. Prices go up. No pills in pharmacies. We are all waiting for the end of war very much and praying for Ukraine.’
24th April, Ukrainian Orthodox Easter Sunday.
      In response to the Easter e-card that I send out with our greetings, I receive photos from Vasyliv: a cherry tree in blossom, lilies, daffodils, deep red tulips. One look and I’m there, back in Bohdan’s garden. A stray chicken scuttles across the path, a cat’s stretched out on the doorstep next to the usual array of mud-caked shoes and wellington boots. And here’s Bohdan at the gate, ready to greet us with a triumphant ‘Christ is risen‘, arms held out to enfold me in a big hug.
And from Masha and Vasili:
      ‘Thank you. We love you. We hope all will be well and that we’ll see each other soon’. With the message came an e-card of an egg painted yellow and blue, the Ukrainian national colours. The egg is decorated with a dove carrying an olive branch in its beak. It’s framed by sunflowers and a bright, shining sun. Above, in Ukrainian, the text, ‘Christ is risen! ‘Ukraine will rise!’, in the hope of a peaceful future for her now war-torn country.     AQ

V. J. Hamilton – Flightless Bird

V. J. Hamilton
Flightless Bird

Abigail’s fingernails dig into the armrests as the van pulls into her parents’ driveway, and she turns to the driver, her brother Ethan, and says, ‘You did bring the turkey, right?’
      His man-child face fills with soft bewilderment. The air in the van is thick with the aromas of candied yams, bacon drippings, broccoli au gratin, and kabocha squash casserole. ‘Let’s see,’ he says, pulling on the parking brake. ‘The roasting pan was so hot I took it out to cool… I went to pack… you came over…’ His face grows blanker and blanker.
      Her voice rises. ‘Do you mean to say we drove all this way and you never once thought: “Did I actually put that giant pan with the forty-pound turkey in the van?”’
      He shrinks against the driver’s seat and turns off the ignition.
      ‘All this way—blocked for an hour by the G-D Thanksgiving marathon,’ she emphasizes. She says ‘G-D’ rather than ‘goddamned’ because they are in their parents’ driveway, and their parents are deacons in the church. Might as well get right back in the habit that served her throughout her teens.
      The Grand Plan threatens to crumble. This year, with Mama’s recent heart trouble, the three young adult siblings had insisted: ‘We’ll divvy up the feast and cook things separately and bring everything to you.’ The siblings live on the east side of the city; their parents live on the west. Ethan had insisted that he would roast the starring dish—the turkey—and Abigail and Ruth co-ordinated the side dishes.
      His thumbs are already dancing madly over his phone. ‘I’ll text Ruth. She can swing by and pick it up.’ Ruth is the eldest child of the family, ten years older than Abigail, who is the youngest.
      ‘Ruth has three kids and four pies and you think she’s got room for that giant turkey in her hatchback?’ Abigail pulls at her hair, staring at her parents’ neatly kept bungalow with the long wooden wheelchair ramp, now unused. ‘Besides, I bet she left ages ago.’
      Abigail and Ethan are already two hours later than planned, which means they are missing the Thanksgiving church service the parents usually drag them out to attend—but she refuses to share this silver lining with Ethan. She wants him to twist in the wind over yet another stupidity.
      She exits the van, his lovingly refurbished two-tone vintage VW camper van, slamming the door harder than necessary, and tries to unlock the bungalow door. The 4-digit number code does not work. She tries several codes, punching harder and harder at the keypad. She returns to the van, muttering, ‘They changed the G-D code!’
      Ethan looks up from this phone and grins. ‘Good news: the baby is projectile vomiting, so Ruth hasn’t left yet.’
      Abigail puts her hand over her mouth. Her nieces are darling, but whatever germs they carry, she usually falls ill from them, too. Just the thought of a crowded noisy table makes her woozy.
      He checks the phone. ‘She’ll pick up the T-bird.’ He grins. ‘Problem solved, Miss Fussbudget.’
      ‘But can she get into your place?’
      ‘Don’t worry,’ he says, ‘There’s likely someone there.’ He shares a house with four other undergrads a couple blocks away from Abigail’s funky little apartment. He pats her arm and clucks. ‘I see your stress-o-meter is ratcheting higher, Sis. Tell you what, I’ve got some edibles to help you chill out.’ He smiles his goofy gap-toothed smile.
      ‘What! Why’d you bring those? With Papa’s radar? And the kids around? Oh Ethan, you know how worried Ruth gets!’
      ‘I’ll keep the candies out of sight.’
      ‘Yeah, that’s what you said about the tabs last time.’ Abigail pulls harder at her hair, remembering the frenzied call to the Poison Control line.
      Ethan rummages vigorously in his duffel bag. ‘Oh crap, these are my floor hockey things. Guess I brought the wrong bag.’
      Of course, she thinks bitterly. Now she wishes she could gnash her teeth on defenceless little gummi bears, and absorb some of the calming CBD, THC, or whatever it is, to cope with another day of Ethan.

* * *

A day earlier, Abigail had dropped by her brother’s house and discovered he was ‘short on funds’ so had not done a speck of shopping. ‘But you said you’d do the meat,’ she scolded him. ‘We can’t show up empty-handed!’
      Looking stunned, as if a pet dog had bit him, Ethan said, ‘I thought Thanksgiving was, like, next week.’
      Too disgusted to speak, she stomped off to her local butcher and begged for his very last bird, a forty-pound behemoth. Meanwhile, Ethan played a round of Blade & Soul with his posse, then searched the cupboards for pans, tested the oven, and inadvertently tested the smoke detector. He was just turning off the screeching alarm as she returned, breathless from hauling the bird. ‘Hey,’ he said, ‘I bet there’s tons of roasting pans at the thrift store.’
      They trekked to the thrift store to buy their largest pan, and to the bakery to buy day-old bread.       Ethan tried to win back her good graces and even charmed her into buying a flat of day-old sprinkled doughnuts.
      Back at the shared house, she silenced her inner nag and helped him cut up a mound of bread and mushrooms. Together, they wrestled the raw carcass open to rinse it and rub it with garlic. She couldn’t help but laugh as the turkey slipped and slid around the sink. The truce continued while they crammed the bird’s cavern with Ethan’s bread mixture. The loaded tinfoil-covered pan was so big it took over most of the shared-house refrigerator, displacing his housemates’ food. But their grumbles were soothed by the flat of doughnuts. Karma seems to go in Ethan’s favour, she thought.
      She left at sundown, after extracting a promise from him to start roasting the turkey at 8 AM so it would be done by the time they had to drive across the city, dodging the path of the city-wide marathon.
      But this morning, she made repeated unanswered calls to him. Finally she’d gone to his house, banged on the door until he opened, sheepishly saying, ‘Incredible as it sounds, I overslept.’

* * *

Now Abigail sits in the van, glaring at the family bungalow, as squat and imperturbable as a toad statue. There’s peeling paint on the highest trim, where Papa can’t reach any more; there’s a warp to the plastic siding where the family once had the barbecue set up too close; and every time she visits, the front steps look more rickety. How did her parents raise all their children in this tiny place? Routinely they’d have twenty people enjoying turkey and fixins every Thanksgiving.
      A joke about a turkey, the flightless bird being unable to travel, occurs to her but she refuses to share it with Ethan. That goofball needs to learn a lesson.
      A triple-rap on her window startles her. Mrs Persimmon, the next-door neighbour, steadies herself with a rake. Abigail lowers her window. The woman leans in. Her dentures are too big and a nimbus of white hair surrounds her face. ‘Oh, it is you! How are you doing, Abigail and Ethan? How lovely. The family for Thanksgiving. Your parents are the luckiest.’ She crackles with good cheer. ‘Mm, smells delicious.’
      ‘Hello Mrs P, how’ve you been?’ Ethan says. Their family occupies a unique and unwanted prominence in the neighbourhood: a decade ago, one child, Susannah, was diagnosed with a rare bone cancer. Mrs Persimmon’s late husband had built the wheelchair ramp and for a time it was Abigail’s favourite thing because they could wheel Susannah in and out of the house so she could still be part of the games, a faint-voiced cheerleader. ‘That ramp is still holding strong,’ Ethan says.
      ‘It is, isn’t it?’ Mrs Persimmon says wistfully.
      ‘I loved racing my skateboard on it.’ He smiles. ‘Hey, maybe my board’s still in the—’
      ‘Don’t even think of it,’ Abigail says irritably. ‘You’ll break your arm and then I’ll have to drive this G-D van.’
      The old woman laughs uncomfortably, like someone seeing static disrupt a favourite TV show. She excuses herself to continue raking.
      ‘We’re sitting ducks now,’ Abigail says, half-dreading the coming barrage of well-wishers. They’re like the Royal Family, she supposes. Minus the jewels.
      ‘I have an idea,’ Ethan says. ‘Why don’t I run and get some cola? Ruth never lets the kids have it. I gotta be the uncle who spoils them.’ He leaves the VW, giving a jaunty wave.
      Go ahead, rot their teeth, she thinks. Another stone upon Ruth’s load.
      Thuds rain upon her window. It’s their neighbour Frank, former chairman of the fundraising committee for Susannah’s experimental treatments.‘Well, hello, Abigail! You are looking beautiful, as usual. How wonderful, you kids coming home to see your ma and pa.’ Frank, a retired barber, is carrying leaf bags and a copy of Community Courier under his arm. She admires his fedora and mustard-yellow tailored jacket. His dapper moustache is trimmed so sharp you could cut your thumb on it.
      ‘Yes, it’ll be fantastic to see them,’ she says with bombast. They chat briefly about her parents being at church and how they (the kids) concocted a Grand Plan of bringing the Thanksgiving feast. ‘What with Mama’s heart, you know.’ No mention of the turkey fuck-up.
      ‘What treasures you are.’ He pulls out his phone and shares a picture of his newest grandchild, born last month.
      Frank leaves, and Abigail frowns as the memory of Ethan’s stupidity washes back on her like acid reflux. The turkey, the heart of the meal. Missing. Honestly, what a sieve-brain. What a chucklehead.       She adjusts the mirror, checking her scarecrow hair, then checking in the rear-view to see if Ethan is on the way back. But no. He’s a dawdler, too.
      She rummages in her bag for a comb and spies the Bible, today’s passage still book-marked. She’s secretly glad she didn’t have to go make nice with dozens of church folk. The reading was about Abel and Cain. What were they fighting over, anyway? Was it some screw-up by an idiot brother? She reads:
Now Cain said to his brother Abel, ‘Let’s go out to the field.’ While they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him. Then the LORD said to Cain, ‘Where is your brother Abel?’
      ‘I don’t know,’ he replied. ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’
      She feels a frisson of recognition as she reads the words ‘my brother’s keeper.’ That sly old Cain, ducking the question by answering with another question.
      ‘Boo!’ Ethan leans in the window and Abigail jumps. He drops a box of Nerds Candy on the page. ‘Reading the Good Book, are you?’
      ‘Cause I feel like murdering you,’ she says.
      He gets in the van and puts the two-litre bottle of cola between them. ‘Everything will be okay.’
      ‘How can you say that?’ She scowls. ‘Again, Ruth has to rescue us.’
      ‘Hey, I should be the angry one—I roasted the damn beast.’
      ‘Which makes you all the stupider for forgetting it!’
      ‘You could’ve asked me, “Hey, did you pack the T-bird?”’
      ‘You could’ve asked yourself: Duh, what’s the one thing I’m s’posed to remember?’ She mimics a beefcake voice.
      ‘I had so much going on, Abby! Laundry, phone calls, grocery shopping…’
      ‘That is normal, everyday life! Can’t you handle it?’ She pulls at her hair; the scalp is quite tender. ‘It’s the damn gaming. Taking over your life. Tell me, when’s the last time you went to class?’
      ‘Aw, Sis.’ He smiles winningly. ‘You have the checklist. You have the menu. Why didn’t you say 1-2-3 like you always do?’
      ‘Because I’m sick of always being your memory device!’ She thumps the armrests. She digs in her nails until white crescents show. ‘How are you ever going to manage? And find a girlfriend and settle down and—and—’ She waves at the family bungalow, its aura of homey comfort, and drops her voice to a whisper. ‘Haven’t you ever wondered why no girl sticks around past the second date?’
      Ethan’s face crumples. ‘Is this what she said to you?’ he asks quietly.
      ‘What? Who?’
      Abigail is briefly immobilized: Melissa and Ethan? Beautiful, talented, intelligent Melissa? She is stratospherically out of her brother’s league. Melissa had sung at Susannah’s funeral. Abigail recalls the crystalline moment: Melissa’s voice soaring ever higher in the nave. Abigail had ached with grief over losing the sister she was closest to, but somehow, that perfectly sung note of the requiem acted as a lighthouse: shining, guiding, showing that the land of hope was within reach. As the notes swelled, Abigail’s heart had stopped hurting. Yes, Susannah was gone, but there were still the others. The three musketeers. She had sworn she would never, ever let her siblings down.
      ‘I was just so happy thinking of driving over here with you,’ Ethan says, lit with innocence, his longish side-hair looking like floppy dog-ears.
      She blinks rapidly.
      ‘Oh hey, Abby. I wanted to share my new song with you…’ He fishes in his pocket and pulls out a turtle-shaped flash-drive. ‘Oops, I forgot. My van player is busted.’
      ‘This is … cool. Your song-writing.’ She does not ask what the song is about. All his songs are, in one way or another, about Susannah. Good times with Susannah. Losing Susannah. Wishing Susannah was here. Of course, he disguises them as ordinary romantic ballads or (on occasion, for Mama) Christian hymns. Abigail accepts his flash-drive and tucks it in her bag. Her eye lights on her notepad. She pulls it out, chuckling. ‘Look at this. How did you know I had a checklist with me? You really should try making lists, too, Ethan. Lists keep you focused.’
      ‘Thanks! I’ll try that,’ he says. He takes the notepad from her and peruses it, then pulls a stubby pencil from the junk tray of the van. He makes a mark and jots a note, item 17.5, in between items 17 and 18. It says, Review checklist with Ethan.‘There,’ he says, handing it back. ‘It’s more efficient to add one little thing to your list, isn’t it? Instead of starting a whole new list for me.’
      Abigail’s face falls. ‘You’re mocking me.’ Her eyes sting.
      Honk honk! As if to emphasize the cruel joke, a horn toots. Ruth pulls up in her hatchback with enclosed roof carrier attached. As the car doors fly open she yells, ‘Everybody, take your knapsacks and pillows.’ Three children pour out, doing as told, and Ruth bustles around, unloading cooler, boxes, and bags—and the giant roaster. The children are locked out from the bungalow and Ruth says, ‘I guess Papa forgot to tell us the new code.’
      ‘Forgetfulness runs in the family,’ Abigail says icily.
      ‘Thank God for that,’ Ruth says. ‘With all the suffering in the world, forgetting is a mercy.’
      ‘Not if you’re responsible for a flightless bird.’
      Soon the six of them are surrounding the pan Ruth has placed on the cooler. ‘Well, Ethan, I picked up your giant pan here but I didn’t look inside… are you sure there’s a roast turkey?’ Ruth teases, ignoring the evident tension. She pulls off the lid and six heads incline. ‘Ahhhh.’
      ‘So beautiful, so brown!’
      ‘Smells amazing!’
      ‘Mommy, can I try a lil piece?’
      Abigail’s mouth is already watering, longing to taste Ethan’s new stuffing.
      ‘The centrepiece,’ Ruth proclaims. ‘Good job, kiddo.’
      Ethan shuffles. ‘I was starting to wonder if I’d remembered to roast anything at all,’ he says defensively. ‘The stupid incompetent ass that I am.’ His eyes dart to Abigail.
      Ruth pats him and says, ‘You’re a turkey genius, lil bro.’
      ‘Oh, I thought I heard voices,’ chortles Mrs Daguerre, the west-side neighbour. In her house-dress and wispy chignon, she totters toward them. ‘Let me take your picture—you are the perfect ensemble—say cheese.’ The neighbourhood shutterbug, she snaps three photos before they can object. She was the self-appointed photographer for the fundraising efforts to bankroll Susannah’s treatments. Her photos often ran alongside articles in the community newspaper. But her best photos, to Abigail, were the ones shown at Susannah’s memorial service. ‘How splendid… you are home to celebrate with your parents. Were you held up by the marathon?’
      ‘It’s open,’ calls the oldest niece, running to the adults. ‘I tried 4321 and it worked!’
      Ruth continues chatting with Mrs Daguerre and Ethan, who is making them laugh. Abigail picks up her kabocha casserole and heads inside. Soon her parents will arrive, and a new kind of madness will descend.    AQ

Grove Koger – Redeeming Defeat: Catalonia’s Diada Nacional

Grove Koger
Redeeming Defeat: Catalonia’s Diada Nacional

It was largely by chance that Maggie and I happened to be in Reus on September 11 in 2018.
      Had we been home, in the United States, we would have seen numerous somber reminders of the day’s significance. But as it was, we were on vacation—‘on holiday’, we would have said, had we been British—and we’d been avoiding the news. Instead, we were paying a short visit to a Catalonian city noted as the birthplace of the great Modernista architect Antoni Gaudí.
      We knew that Gaudí hadn’t designed any of the buildings in Reus, but his admirers have set up a museum here, the Gaudí Centre, celebrating his work. And several other Modernista architects have left their mark on the city. It promised to be a good day trip from our base in nearby Tarragona.
      However, as our taxi wound through a maze of streets toward the centre of town, we realized that something was happening. There were people about, too many for a typical weekday morning, and they were walking and talking with a festive air. Red and yellow Catalan banners were flying, and men in bull costumes trailed parades of children behind them.
      As we soon learned, we had inadvertently chosen to visit Reus on Catalonia’s National Day, the Diada Nacional de Catalunya. And as we know now, the day commemorates not a victory, but a defeat—the fall of the Catalonian port of Barcelona in 1714 to troops fighting for Felipe V during the War of the Spanish Succession. It was also on that day that Rafael Casanova, the mayor of Barcelona and the commander in chief of Catalonia, was wounded in battle. He and his fellow Barcelonans had supported Habsburg ruler Charles VI, who had pledged to defend Catalonian autonomy. The defeat signalled the loss of the rights that Catalans had enjoyed, to one degree or another, for centuries.


The first written reference to Catalonia, which lies in northeastern Spain, was in the early twelfth-century Latin epic Liber maiolichinus de gestis pisanorum illustribus, an account of an attack on the Muslim-controlled island of Majorca in which Catalans played an important role. But Catalans can trace their political roots back farther, to the ninth century and the establishment of the Comtat de Barcelona, which gradually extended its control over the adjoining territories.
      As the Principality of Catalonia, Barcelona eventually joined the confederation known as the Crown of Aragon, and when Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile married in 1469, the two kingdoms were united. Catalonia enjoyed a brief period of independence during the Franco-Spanish War of 1635-1659, but within a few decades came that decisive defeat. Over time, however, a sense of national identity grew, and in 1886, Catalans celebrated their first Diada Nacional. Two years later, with the opening of the Barcelona Universal Exposition, a statue of the heroic Rafael Casanova was erected on the very patch of ground where he had been wounded.
      Catalonia’s fortunes rose and fell during the twentieth century, but the worst years were those of the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939, which brought with them misery and widespread political and cultural suppression. Reporting on the conflict in 1937, Ernest Hemingway described how the convoy he was in nearly came under fire near Reus. ‘Then, outside of [the city], on a straight smooth highway with olive orchards on each side, the chauffeur from the rumble seat shouted, “planes, planes!” and, rubber screeching, we stopped the car under the tree.’
      The convoy itself wasn’t bombed, but as Hemingway and his companions watched, ‘came a sudden egg-dropping explosion of bombs, and ahead, Reus, silhouetted against hills a half-mile away, disappeared in a brick dust-coloured cloud of smoke. We made our way through the town, the main street blocked by broken houses and a smashed water main.’
      The war left Reus one of Spain’s most heavily bombed cities.


Today, Catalonia is a comunitat autònoma, or autonomous community, within Spain, one of seventeen such divisions, and exercises limited self-government. But it’s clear that the atrocities that it suffered during the Civil War and the subsequent dictatorship of General Francisco Franco (who died in 1975) have fuelled renewed attention to the Diada and a fiercer desire for complete independence.
      We saw evidence of those atrocities when we toured Reus’s most noteworthy building, the Casa Navàs. Built in the early years of the twentieth century by Catalan architect Lluís Domènech i Montaner, the structure fronts on the Plaza del Mercadal a few steps from the Gaudí Centre. Among its many attractions is a mosaic depicting the departure of King James I of Aragon, Count of Barcelona, as he set out on a later military expedition against Majorca. More revealing, however, is the condition of the Casa itself, which was badly damaged during the Nationalist bombing. Although some restoration has been done, the elegant tower that once graced its corner has yet to be replaced. Plans are in the works to do so, but for the time being, the disfigured structure stands as a mute reminder of the ravages of the civil war.
      In Barcelona, which we had visited earlier in the month, the Diada traditionally begins with government officials laying flowers at the base of Casanova’s statue. It has also been an occasion for large and often unruly pro-independence demonstrations. The economic crisis that struck in 2008 strained the already frayed relationship between Catalonia and Spain’s central government, with Catalans arguing that they were being taxed to support the country’s poorer communities. Over the course of the 2010s, the size of the demonstrations swelled, routinely reaching more than a million participants. And in 2017, the Catalan Parliament declared independence—a step that led to the imprisonment of several of the community’s government ministers and the flight of others. But by 2021, during the COVID pandemic, the number of demonstrators had fallen dramatically. While Catalan nationalists put the number at 400,000, police estimated only 108,000.
      At the end of our day in Reus, we returned to Tarragona with a renewed appreciation of Catalan history. As we’ve come to understand it, the Diada itself is an anniversary. Rather than being a celebration of defeat, it’s an assertion of national aspirations. And what happens on this year’s Diada Nacional may well indicate what course those aspirations are going to follow.   AQ

Bob Ward – Seaside Conversations

Bob Ward
Seaside Conversations

Among the many pleasures to be savoured on holiday, a leading one must be conversations, often with the strangers you happen to meet informally. Those are occasions when you enrich each other’s being and are able to do so because there is no pressure to rush off anywhere in pursuit of some arid goal that’s been imposed on you. Arising from this, I’ve taken an interest in how people often become truly themselves when engaged in conversation. These photographs are records of people simply talking to each other. They were taken in Wells-next-the-Sea, UK on either a Canon D20 or D7 SLR camera. He is an Associate of the Royal Photographic Society.

Bob Ward, Asking Directions, photograph, 2022


Bob Ward, Reminiscing, photograph, 2022

Bob Ward – Berber Woman

Bob Ward
Berber Woman

                           Tunisia, 2014

Rising from her doorstep
   where she’s been plaiting
   roughly scavenged grass,
   she coaxes us inside.

Her home seems all stairs
   and curtained cubby-holes
   for nomads come to ground
   in a hill-top refuge.

Under shade on a flat roof
   she offers us fresh bread
   to dip in a pool of honey
   suffused with thyme.

The yoke of her straight shift
   boasts devoted needlework
   and her ever-eager smile
   radiates golden teeth.

While her husband’s rhetoric
   makes out she’s the boss,
   she signals us a giggly
   denial behind his back.

Timothy Dodd – Three Days to Quionga

Timothy Dodd
Three Days to Quionga

              Most relaxed                               are the hippos
                            when I cross the Rovuma
in dugout           canoe.                             No
immigration forms, uniforms
              when I step out              onto Mozambican
ground.                            Up the hill, through woods
              I walk                                             arriving at two
huts in a clearing                        two hours later.
              I’m told             the weekly jeep might come
                            tomorrow.        So I get my passport
stamp                               befriend the policeman
               who gives me fish                       and a hammock
at twilight                        before the mosquitoes party.
Next afternoon               I’m in the back
              of the jeep                        barreling down a dirt
path                                  limbs of thick trees poking me
inside.                Girls in muciro masks               stare
              as we shoot       past.                  Arriving
at the first village          I see some shacks and one
store with cement floor            where I get permission
              to sleep             with my backpack.
                            During the night                         I dream
of Nampula                    its storefront windows
              carrying only a can of beans                  wearing
a discoloured label.                                 A lack
              in vegetables                                              isn’t all
that uncommon                                                      in life.
              By late morning             a camion comes. I
climb in and head down the tarred road
              in slow              swirls                 around
the potholes                    like craters.     Eight hours
              later                   we reach the empty streets
of Quionga        only now realizing        it’s Ramadan
              and all I can find to eat              is a basket
of 12 small mangoes                    as orange as the Indian
Ocean sunset                                              with all its juices.

Katherine Shehadeh – On the First Night of Ramadan

Katherine Shehadeh
On the First Night of Ramadan

On the first day of Ramadan, my family gave to me—
well, nothing (that’s kind of the point), but not to worry,
the very first night of Ramadan was a whole ‘nother story…

There were Ramadan dates shared with Ramadan mates, &
Ramadan fishes paired with Ramadan best wishes…kisses &
hugs & kaleidoscopic prayer rugs.

My Ramadan mama gon’ an’ made us some traditional Palestine
pizza, the kind topped with the pine nuts & sumac, but certainly
not cheeza (though my sister stashed the spicy Cheetos for when
we could eat those).

We spilled that Ramadan Tea over Ramadan tea, passed around
Ramadan snacks & pickled what’s thats… After stuffing my
face, I’m reminded that it’s not a race; it’s a month-long marathon.

Edward Supranowicz – And the Toys and Xmas Ornaments All Went Mad

Edward Supranowicz
And the Toys and Xmas Ornaments All Went Mad

Edward Supranowicz is the grandson of Irish and Russian/Ukrainian immigrants. He grew up on a small farm in Appalachia. He has a graduate background in painting and printmaking. Some of his artwork has recently appeared or will soon appear in Fish Food, Streetlight, Another Chicago Magazine, The Door Is a Jar, The Phoenix, and The Harvard Advocate. Supranowicz is also a published poet.

Edward Supranowicz, And the Toys and Xmas Ornaments All Went Mad, digital image, 2021

Jennifer L. Freed – My Mother Dreams of Christmas Past

Jennifer L. Freed
My Mother Dreams of Christmas Past

She plans in the dark, lying awake
while my father snores—plans to festoon the house
with pine boughs, let their scent
waft from mantlepieces and door frames.
She imagines herself toward daylight, when she’ll go out
in the yard to cut branches, carry them
to the living room, maybe even
weave her own wreath for the front door. She can
use the twist ties in the kitchen drawer, attach fresh cranberries
and pinecones. And next week, since the snow
hasn’t yet fallen, she’ll rake all the leaves into a heap,
make a great mound for the children to play in
while the adults linger at the table. She remembers
her mother, her grandmother, the days
of preparation—all those pans in the oven,
the best linen, aired and ironed, the holly, mistletoe, laughter.

With the sun’s slow rise, my mother, too, rises, begins
her morning routine—the walker to help her stand,
the slow journey to the bathroom, the sponge bath,
then the sturdy bench where she sits as she dresses.
By the time I call, she is weeping: my father
is making the coffee, bringing her food to the table, and she can’t
seem to do anything she intends. She wanted
to get it all done before he awoke. She wanted
to surprise him. Oh, she wanted, she wanted
the pine scent of when she was small. She wanted
to make the house shine. She had it all
planned. I just can’t
seem to get hold of time.

In my own kitchen, I hold the phone and hold
my tongue as I listen to my mother spin
more plans, more promises
that she’ll work harder, that she’ll do better
tomorrow. I don’t remind her
that her grandchildren are in college now,
that she hasn’t decorated the house for years,
that no one expects a woman with a walker
to cut pine branches from the yard,
that it was her Italian father, not her Jewish husband,
who cared about Christmas,
that it’s November,
that this may be her last winter
in her house.

Jeff McRae – Homemade

Jeff McRae

The vets home boasts a pair of band stands
in case two bands honour them the same day.
We set up under the double row of poles—
POW-MIA flags half-mast and snapping—
on the smaller stage nearest the home so
the soldiers inside can hear us play music
written decades before they were born.
This final home, surrounded by a seven-
foot fence topped by four rows of razor
wire like a prison camp, holds them in,
safe from the traffic, all those cars free
to move across the earth. Veterans Day.
The town turns out in November cold.
Kids dump bikes festooned with bunting
on the dead grass, huddle between the
black monuments. The speakers don’t
try to sound eloquent—use homegrown,
well-worn words that disappoint the kids,
don’t describe bloodshed, battle. They keep
the occasion simple, heft old symbols and
figures of speech, hold them up for all
to hear in the crisp air. Town elders,
long-suffering wives know how cold
November can be. I almost forget
the building behind us is full of people.
It must be warm in there. Our trumpeter
blows hot air into his horn. We are ready
to strike up the music on the rickety
and weather-beaten gazebo where not
a single couple has carved their initials.