AUGUST 5, 1915, started out like any other day. The sounds of war echoed in the distance, but on the farmlands surrounding the village of Kivertsi in Volhynia, life went on as usual. That comforted Lukia Mazurets, who asked nothing of life except the means to feed and shelter her growing family. She looked out her farmhouse window at the field of grain swaying in the wind, a scene so gentle it was hard to believe that if the war moved any closer, men’s blood would be spilled on the soil.
She then peered down the dirt road leading to the main artery. No sign of Gregory. She’d hoped her husband would give up his foolishness and return from Lutsk, but the only movement was the dust swirling above the road.
A sharp labour pain forced her to grab hold of the windowsill. She gritted her teeth and breathed deeply until the agony in her lower abdomen had passed. The pains were coming more quickly. Lukia realized she could wait no longer.
She rolled up the sleeves of her housedress and twisted her long hair into a topknot before putting the kettle on the hot cast-iron plate. Then she spread a half dozen burlap bags on the floor of the komorra, where she kept cucumbers, sauerkraut, potatoes, and carrots. The smell of the fermenting cabbage soothed her, but not enough to combat the sharp aches or squash her anger.
Why in hell had Gregory chosen this time to go to the city? It was a half hour ride away by horse. He knew she could deliver at any moment. Groaning, she pushed her frustration aside and placed a goose-feather pillow at the head of the burlap row, and beside it, a sterilized knife on a tea towel and an old sheet. Satisfied with her arrangement, she crossed herself three times, each time saying, “In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.” She clasped her hands. “Please God, make this one strong.” Her first baby had died shortly after childbirth. Her last one had managed to live only six months. The five they had now were strong, but if this one died she would insist on no more pregnancies. Her heart wouldn’t be able to take it. Besides, she was forty, not an age to keep having children. Nor an age to birth them by herself.
Yet here she was alone. Hania, her eldest at thirteen, had gone with her two younger brothers to a nearby farm to sell eggs. The older boys, Egnat and Ivan, were in the fields with neighbours, who’d offered to help cut their barley, wheat, and oats. She couldn’t even call on her mother or her sisters. Her mother lived with Lukia’s brother Pavlo in the Carpathian Mountains and was probably out on the road in that district, curing the sick with her herbs.
Panashka, the one sister that lived close by, had her own troubles with an alcoholic husband who spoke with his fists. Lukia didn’t think he’d be too happy to have his wife leave their home to help her sister. Not if it meant he wouldn’t have supper waiting for him when he came into the house after working all day in the fields. Besides, even if Panashka could help, it would take Egnat too long to deliver a message that his mother was in labour. His aunt lived on a farm near Kovel, about three and a half hours away by horse.
The more Lukia thought about the possible risk to herself and the baby, the more she realized she should’ve asked Hania to stay home, at least until her father got back. But she’d been too upset with Gregory to think straight. Well, there was nothing she could do about it now but pray for the best.
The next pain radiated around to her back, reminding her she’d forgotten one last thing. She went to the kitchen cupboard and got a clean rag and a bottle of horilka. She poured a little of the homebrew into a saucer then soaked one end of the cloth in the alcohol. Clutching the rag, she made her way back to the komorra, lifted up her skirt and lay down on the burlap bags. The sharp taste of the vodka-soaked cloth dulled the pain as she pushed in concert with the baby’s momentum.
She lost track of how long she lay there, hollering with each push, praying the baby would slide out easily. This one was larger than the others, but thankfully her hips had widened through birthing seven. She put her hand between her legs and, after a few more thrusts, felt the moist crown of her infant’s head. “Almost here,” she mumbled.
She braced herself and yelled with one final push. Her baby slid out, slippery and shiny with streaks of blood and white fluid. Lukia looked between her infant’s legs and laughed. “I expected a boy.” Then, holding her daughter with one hand, she used the other to cut the umbilical cord. Shortly after, her baby howled. When her greyish skin turned pink with the first cry, relief surged through Lukia like water rushing through a broken dam.
The horrific labour pains were soon forgotten as she watched her baby suck greedily. Even her anger at her husband seeped away. Shivering, Lukia reached for the sheet to cover herself. She gazed at her daughter’s face and whispered, “Eudokia,” a name she’d always loved.
After a nap with Eudokia, Lukia placed another clean cloth between her legs to stem the bleeding and went to the kitchen to prepare supper. She was stirring cabbage with tomatoes on the stove when she heard the front door creak. She turned to see Gregory standing in the doorway wearing a soldier’s uniform.
Her worst fears had come true.
Lukia choked back tears and showed her back, but not before she saw Gregory’s eyes widen with the discovery that she was no longer with child. Her legs felt rooted in cement while she waited for an apology. None came. He stood for a few minutes, as if he too was waiting for some word, and then went into their bedroom, where Eudokia lay sleeping.
Gnashing her teeth, Lukia stirred the vegetables with force. She tried to calm herself to avoid spilling any precious food. Not long after, Gregory returned to the main room. As if nothing out of the ordinary had happened, he came up behind her and fondled her breasts. She whirled around and pushed him so hard he stumbled on the uneven clay floor.
“What?” he said, grabbing the top of the spindle chair to keep from falling. “You have a beautiful girl and you’re angry?”
“What’s this?” She poked his khaki shirt.
He stretched out his arms and twirled around, showing off his new uniform. “I look handsome, yes?”
For a moment, she admired his fine figure in a tunic, breeches and leather boots, but once she saw the peaked cap in his hand, her fury rose like smoke from a dying fire. The badge on his cap displayed the Romanov colours of black, white, and orange.
He grinned. “They also gave me a greatcoat, a knapsack, and a rifle.”
“What’s it to me?”
“Don’t say that. The Germans and Austrians are already advancing on Warsaw. Lutsk could be next.”
“That’s what I’m afraid of.”
“Frown all you like, but I promised the Tsar and Tsarina I’d help fight these devils.”
She spat. “The hell with the Tsar and Tsarina! You promised me first.”
“What are you saying?”
When we got married,” she said, arching her eyebrows, “the priest said we were one flesh, and now you want to tear us apart? We may have to leave at any moment. We’ll be forced to run.”
“If we win this battle, you won’t have to leave.”
“How do you know? Our army, biggest in the world they say, has been fighting for a year and where has it got us? Nowhere. From what I’ve heard, you’ll be lucky to be fed.” She shook her head.
He tightened his lips. “Stop shaking your head. You only make matters worse.”
“And what are you going to do, speak Russian?”
“The Tsar isn’t stopping us from speaking Ukrainian anymore.”
“Oh, he’s had a change of heart, has he?” She waved her fork at him. “It’s probably because he needs Ukrainians to do his dirty work. Well, I spit on the Tsar. We’re nothing to him.”
“And what if you get killed?” She put her left hand on her chest to ease the pounding.
Gregory’s brow furrowed. “I’ll be safe. You’ll be safe, too. The government is organizing shelter and food for refugees.”
“Ha. As if they could organize anything.” She checked the cabbage, found it tender, and took the pot off the stove.
“Don’t worry. You’ll be sent somewhere with the children.”
“Somewhere,” she said, glaring. “How will you find us?”
“I’ll find you. Don’t worry.”
“Oy, you have an answer for everything. Are you forgetting I just had a baby? You may as well drown me with the family—then you’ll know where to find us.”
“Enough already!” he said, stamping his foot. “I have to pack. They’re sending me to the front.”
“You want me to leave like that?” His warm brown eyes searched hers, begging her to understand. “I will need your prayers.”
At that, she softened. With a lump in her throat, she said, “I will pray for you and the others.”
“You’re a good woman.”
“If I was so good, you wouldn’t be leaving me.”
“Don’t say.” His eyes glistened with a sadness she hadn’t expected. For a moment, she thought he might change his mind, but then he turned and went into their bedroom to bundle up his things.
She stood in the doorway and watched him pack: tobacco, endpapers, a comb, a mirror, wool socks, and underwear. She wanted to give him reminders of home—of his wife and family—but she had nothing to give. No photos, no keepsakes.
She followed him outside, where he called Egnat and Ivan, who left their implements in the field and came running. When Gregory saw Hania and their two youngest sons coming up the road, returning from selling eggs, he dropped his knapsack on the ground and hugged his children, one by one, telling them to take care of the farm and their mother. Lukia teared up, wondering if this was the last time they’d be together.
While Egnat went to hitch a horse to the wagon, Gregory took Lukia in his arms. She inhaled his sweat and tobacco smell, trying to cement it in her memory so he’d be beside her, no matter what lay ahead.
He stepped back and held her shoulders. “Look at our land. Our rich black earth. This is what we fight for, this is what lasts. We do it for our children and the children that will follow.”
Unharvested stocks stood tall in their half-shorn golden fields, seemingly defying the nearby war threatening their bounty. A black stork glided over the grain as it headed for the woods beyond. The land was what kept their hopes up day after day. There were many times she had picked up a handful of dirt to smell the rich loam and relish its feel as it slipped through her fingers. Gregory was right. They couldn’t afford to lose it.
As if he could read her mind, he said, “Our German settlers were sent to Siberia. Their property was taken away.”
“Of course,” she said. “They’re now the enemy.”
“The Tsar is promising those lands to veterans when they return home.”
“Oy. You can’t believe what the Tsar says.”
“Listen, I also heard that those who don’t fight for our country could lose their farms. What would we do if that happened?”
“And what would I do if I lost you?”
“I’ll be careful.”
She shook her head. How careful could he be, with Germans dropping bombs from the sky? Where could he run if a grenade was thrown?
Her eyes watered again. “Be safe. Go with God.”
He kissed her deeply, his dark moustache bruising her lips one more time. When he let go, her impulse was to grab his jacket and keep him at home. Instead, she stroked his cheek. His eyes fastened on her briefly as if looking longer might keep him from going. Then he picked up his knapsack, climbed into the wagon beside Egnat, and left for Lutsk.