We sprinted across the station platform, panting, racing in an effort to jump aboard the slow-moving train that chugged out of Lviv. I clutched a door handle, lost my balance, and thought I was going to break my neck. Somebody opened the door and hoisted me up. My boyfriend, Taras, was right behind me, and they yanked him on board, too. We fell into the train with our bags, huffing and laughing. It was summer’s end and we didn’t want to leave, but it was time and we had things to do back on the other side of the world. Everything was still lovely in Lviv.
Summer felt like a dream. Day after sunny day we lolled around on Ploshcha Rynok, the old Market Square under the mythological statues. We sipped vodka drinks steeped in spices and herbs and honey, glasses of clear medovukha, and got mildly smashed.
The real dream hadn’t kicked in yet.
In the cool of Lviv evenings, we strolled along the washed cobblestones, looking for lavish suppers. Throughout the darkened Square, restaurants and terraces were festive with lit candles, flickering and constant.
We ate outdoors late in the evening. We spooned up Ukrainian borscht thick with beet blood, musky with feral black mushrooms pulled out of the dirt from the deepest, haunted forests of the oblast. A child with flaxen braids carried plates to our table, of stuffed cabbage leaves called holubchi, “little pigeons.” They came drowned in stewed tomatoes, more beets, and horseradish.
Those suppers took me back to my Bobchi’s scrubbed linoleum kitchen in Jersey City, overlooking the fire escape. Pots like that bubbled on the old gas stove. Strong and durable, my Bobchi. When she wasn’t wreaking tasty damage in the kitchen, pounding grains and honey with a bronze pestle, trouncing the bread dough, pinching the edges of the perohii, she might be picking fights. Maybe beating up on you with her fists and the sharp jewels of her rings. She jinxed you with the threat of heart attacks if you ran up the stairs to escape. Maybe it was because of her rugged girlhood that she stood battle ready.
“You girls,” she berated her daughters, “you’re soft and lazy. When I worked in the fields and I got tired, I lay down on the ground and slept like that, with my head on a stone. That was my pillow, a stone.” I didn’t find out what she worked at in the fields; she wouldn’t tell me, but it sounded hard.
Once I heard her talking to herself in the dining-room mirror next to the portrait of the poet Shevchenko in his Cossack fur hat. She twisted her long gray hair in a bun and stuck it with combs and pins. “We were together, all of us girls in the fields. We loved to sing. It kept us going, when we sang our song to the river. O Dnieper, my Dnieper.”
I still hear her quavering in a splintered voice, high and tragic. “O Dnieper, my Dnieper.”
Not only did she scold and pummel her four daughters, one of whom was my mother—caught sewing in her room on a Sunday—but her patient husband as well. He and she both came from villages outside Lviv. They met in Lviv, where he was a young accountant in a rising firm and she was a maid in a big house, and look at them now, so old, so old. I watched them from behind the fluttering hall curtains that hid me in their folds. I wore gauzy dresses with Ukrainian embroidery. They called me Marcelka.
My grandfather sat in the kitchen corner by the flour sifter, reading his newspaper, Svoboda, where he used to be an editor. He kept an eye on Bobchi and the girls, smoked his cigarettes with the amber cigarette holder, and took aim at his brass cuspidor. That was the first thing the daughters threw out when he lay white and speechless in his coffin, parked by our living room windows.
We walked a little way out of the city of Lviv, Taras and I, to meander through the Lychakiv Cemetery and read the dead people’s tombstones, especially the famous ones heaped with wilted wreaths. An old-timey Lviv writer was there, Ivan Franko, his monument a brawny rock-breaker hefting a hammer. What I loved were his dark and baleful stories, especially one about a jealous girl who pushed her rival into a well.
Rambling around Lviv, we counted the lion statues. That’s what Lviv was about. It was the city of lions. Sculptures in stone and bronze, images on buildings, the lions were planted everywhere as tribute to an early Prince Leo, and the city was sometimes called Leopolis.
Merchant palaces and princely town houses looked down on us as we trudged the streets. Our room at the Hotel George had a cabinet full of painted china and a table set up with lace for tea, which we never got. A white porcelain stove rose from floor to ceiling for warmth in case we stayed for the winter.
Beyond the medieval Arsenal jammed with swords and obsolete weapons, we climbed a long, stone stairway where hucksters sold precious junk out of suitcases. These suitcases lay all over the steps like Pandora’s boxes. I didn’t know what they were hiding until one or two sellers unlocked theirs, releasing a spillage of tattered books and magazines. I bought a Green Hornet comic in Ukrainian. A nearby suitcase held spoons, buttons, badges, and military medals stained with the blood of old wars.
We followed a brigade of scrawny cats to the Church of the Assumption of the Virgin. At the altar I lit candles for people I loved, for Bobchi and my grandfather and their daughters, especially my mother, who sewed my high-school dresses, and the others who weren’t here anymore.
The place reminded me of the church in downtown Jersey City, where I had water sprinkled on me when I was a month old. I suppose Taras did too since his family thought the way mine did. Later, I discovered firsthand that the Jersey church served up hard nuggets of communion bread flavored like little mothballs. Saints and martyrs with staring eyes and solid gold halos crowded the walls, giving the church a Byzantine air. I heard it finally burned to the ground.
The train charged out of Lviv, picking up speed, and we flopped down on the banquettes of our compartment. The compartment smelled like hot, green, plush upholstery. Taras pushed open the window, letting in gusts of smoke. I was wearing shorts, and the seats felt prickly as sand. There was no water coming from the brass faucet. We carried our own beer in a string bag, and the beer was warm.
“The only way we can open these is with our teeth.” I sulked because Taras hadn’t remembered an opener. The conductor brought us an old jar of snacks that passed for bar food, broken, dusty pretzels with ants. I thanked him and asked if there was a bar. As far as I could tell, he indicated no bar.
I tore open a packet I’d bought at the Lviv Chocolate Works on Serbska Street. “Here,” I said to Taras. “Have a chocoladnoi marzipan.” The cardboard wrapper pictured a famous vintage engraving of a far-off, fairy-like Lviv, its fragile spires and towers floating on a forlorn horizon. The year was 1618.
After rumbling along for a quarter of an hour, the train screeched to a halt with a clanking jolt. We were at a derelict station house. I peered at the name and tried pronouncing it but gave up. It didn’t seem like a border stop. A spread-eagle flag on a red field flirted and rippled its ragged feathers.
“It looks like a toolshed from Home Depot,” Taras said. He was in a bad temper with nothing to drink.
“The roof is caving in,” I said.
“And they painted it over with that Maria-Theresa yellow that everybody’s crazy about.”
I didn’t bother disagreeing. I liked Maria-Theresa yellow. Then I saw the dogs. Just below our train windows were big wire pens of hungry, restless dogs, ranging, growling, jaws gaping, fleering, red eyes turned up to the train window. They seemed to expect a meal, which might be us.
“Now what?” I exploded, giving Taras a half-hearted swat with my cranberry-leather Dolce & Gabbana bag, which cost me eight hundred bucks in Bergdorf’s. “What were you thinking, bringing us on this train? Throwing us to the dogs?”
Taras grabbed my bag from me in an amiable way and dropped it on the seat. “What dogs?”
“Look.” I thumped on the glass of the open window.
He surveyed the snarling canines and shrugged. “They’re penned up in cages. Anyhow, there wasn’t another train until next week.”
“You’re not taking the situation seriously.” I looked through the window again. “Oh, what’s this!” I saw a gang surging out of the station shack. They looked more menacing than the dogs.
Girls in uniform ran out in formation. They wore black berets, summer blouses, and khaki miniskirts. They were graceful and willowy, glamorous as gazelles prancing on five-inch stiletto heels. Bandoliers slung cross-body, cartridge belts holding ammunition. Behind them ran a pack of muscled guys in combat fatigues, metal-toe boots, guns at the ready.
I heard them clamber up the train steps, sure they were running toward our carriage.
Taras whooped with glee. “They’re really hot. It’s a chorus line.”
“That’s what you think?” I stared at Taras, who looked smolderingly good with a scuzzy three-day beard and disheveled black eyebrows, but just then he sounded clueless.
“They’re putting on a show for us,” he explained as if to someone who didn’t speak the language. “They’re entertainers. They’re saying hello like a welcoming committee. Can’t you tell?”
“Why would they do that?” I was astonished at the way he viewed this impending peril. “How can you be so sure?”
“They’re having a good time,” he insisted, “like the Polovtsian slave girls from the Russian opera. Remember how terrific they are in Prince Igor? In that Stranger in Paradise routine. Great music.”
“You think they’re singing. I think they’re yelling bloody murder. They’re looking for us. I don’t see them going after the other passengers, and they’ve got those dogs ready to sic on us.”
“It’s your imagination. They’re classic opera. I thought you liked Borodin.”
In a minute we were surrounded.
“Railway Patrol,” the uniforms barked. They did seem to move like a dancing corps with a pugnacious grace, storming into our compartment military style, knocking us aside, shouting orders to one another. They all had long blonde ponytails. Billy clubs and screwdrivers dangled from their belts.
They tore up the compartment, wrenching out the velvet banquettes and throwing them on the floor. They unscrewed the ceiling panels and flung them on top of the seats. They dismantled the cold radiators and pulled them apart. The girls fixed pocket mirrors onto poles, periscopes to search under everything.
Taras laughed, treating it like a joke, until they ripped open our meager luggage, scattering our things. The dogs surprisingly had no interest in us, only in sniffing our clothes and slavering on them.
“What are you looking for?” I asked the Polovtsian maidens, who ignored me and just went on wrecking the compartment. Finally, one of the girls jabbed me in the ribs.
“Goods you stole from Lviv. Contraband. Now hand over your passports.”
“Regulations. We are soon taking over Lviv. All drugs, bombs, cigarettes, archeological booty, Cossack epic poetry, they now belong to us, together with the buildings and the prisoners.”
Taras grabbed my arm. “Let’s get out of here. Come on!”
“No, wait. I’m not leaving our stuff, my clothes, my notes. We haven’t stolen anything.”
“You’re making a bad mistake.” He grabbed me. “If we don’t get out now, we’ve had it.”
“You go if you want,” I said.
“Not without you.”
Suddenly the door flew open, and a bunch of combat girls seized hold of Taras. A couple of loutish lads forced him to the floor. One of the girls stepped on his neck with her spiked heel and struck a pose. Her comrade snapped her photo with a cell phone. “You have criminal faces,” they shouted. “Where is the contraband?”
Still on the floor, Taras demanded, “What contraband?”
“Alcohol. Petroleum. Sub-Carpathian antiquities. Stone gods. Mystic crystals. Ruthenian dried mushrooms. Cyrillic Bibles. Church relics.”
One girl pointed to me and waved a church candle. Like this one. She’d found a beeswax candle I filched as a souvenir from the Church of the Assumption. She had me.
“I left the coins for it,” I lamely defended myself, but no one cared. They were having fun with Taras, down on the floor, and talked about torturing him a little.
“Stop,” I cried, but they elbowed me off.
I felt the train heaving and jerking, which disrupted the fun the combat team was having with us. Through the window I saw a bunch of kids in grease-monkey gear crawling under the cars. They were removing the wheels. Others were cranking and hefting up the whole train on their shoulders.
“What are you doing?” I called down.
One of the boys jeered at my ignorance. “Changing the gauges of the train tracks. We unlock wheels, move to the new correct width. Lift train in place, lock wheels again.”
At this, the wrecking crew cleared out of the compartment, carrying our passports with them. The last of the Polovtsian maidens slammed her billy club into my shoulder. A parting shot.
“Be a good girl,” she said with a beautiful grin. “I’m locking you two in so you don’t think of escaping.”
She was the dancer with the best biceps, the most talent in her feet when she stood on Taras.
I gave her a little Bobchi-style shove, and she sat down on the floor, stunned, eyes wobbly. Before she could get over her surprise, I whipped off her black beret as a trophy and put it on my own head.
“Let’s go,” I said to Taras. “Back to Lviv.”
Taras looked groggy from his getting mildly mauled. “You’re sure you don’t want to catch another train and keep going?”
We looked at each other, and the same realization dawned. We both wanted to make sure all the Lviv lions stayed safe.
“I’m going with you.” He tossed me my red bag. We slipped from the compartment and pulled the window down on the side away from the guys and girls who were busy shifting the gauges.
Taras jumped from the train, which was still rocking from side to side. I followed. I bounced through the window and into his arms. I clung to him for an instant and then we ran for it. We didn’t stop until we got to a dirt road by an open field.
We hitched a ride on a hay wagon that carried us back over the bumpy highway. Then we traveled miles of narrow, winding routes. It was a long trip all the way back to the Central Railway Station on Dvirtseva Square.
We were glad to see the huge blocks of granite paving those regal baroque walls. They looked indestructible. The stained glass had been removed from the churches and hidden for safekeeping, and so had the sacred images and even the mythological Greek statuary from Rynok Square. They would be back under peaceful skies. We wouldn’t be leaving Lviv. With that I entered the final dream with Taras, and the dream was real.
A Ukrainian Fairy Tale
by Marcelle Thiébaux
New York, NY, USA
“In peacetime ten years ago I visited Lviv, a beautiful small city in western Ukraine, of palaces, cafés, churches, shops, museums and lions. I was looking for my relatives, any who might be there. I didn't find them, though in subsequent years my son found them. But I did find a story which was in some ways menacing and in other ways dreamy and inspiring.”
Marcelle Thiébaux has published stories in The MacGuffin, Avalon Literary Review, cream city review, decomP magazinE, The Delmarva Review, Dogzplot, Forge Journal, Good Works Review, Grand Central Noir Anthology, The Griffin, Ignatian Literary Magazine, Keeping the Edge, Literal Latté, Louisiana Literature, The Penmen Review, Mondays Are Murder, Urban Fantasy, Blood: Tales of Fantasy and Murder, Visitant, and Vol.1 Brooklyn, among others. Her books on medieval themes include The Stag of Love: The Chase in Medieval Literature; Dhuoda, Handbook for Her Warrior Son; and The Writings of Medieval Women. She has received a Pen & Brush Club Award and a Writer’s Digest Annual Writing Competition Award, and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.