The Telenkovian Experiment
The table was a workbench and the floor belonged to the field mice and the rats as much as us. It was unusual for us to share dinners on special occasions with anyone except family. But it was a special occasion and, whether we wanted it or not, we were all part of one family in Telenkov in that year.
Tasha’s soul never seemed right for her body. She always felt that her breasts were too big, or her hands were not big enough. She never let her long, black hair flow down her back in public, and never in the company of men. She was always concerned about appearances, even in the worst of times. The real reasons were reserved for herself and her Creator.
Tasha insisted on setting out the dishes and candlesticks that somehow survived three Czars, a World War, the Korinski uprising of Spring, 1917, the Bolshevik revolution of Fall, 1917, and a civil war that lingered on in the Ukraine till the Fall of ’22, even though they tell me the history books say it ended in ‘20.
It was late March. The air had started to thaw in February, a gift from a South wind that had caressed the Steppes after a cold snap that had lasted since before Christmas. But the ground was still hard as a rock and the green of Springtime was still frozen in our frostbitten imaginations. As was Nicholi’s skill with a hammer and nails.
“I’ll fix the roof right this time. I went to school to be a carpenter, and I’ll be damned to hell if winter will beat me again,” he said as he repaired the roof for the third time that week. Most anyone walking on two legs, and a few creatures who walked on four, could have done a better job than Nicholi. But Nicholi was the village carpenter, and even if we didn’t respect his position, we admired his persistence. He was born to the woods, with a growl of a bear, the front teeth of a badger and a mustache thicker than Stalin’s, a fact in which he took much pride. No one was more determined to convert rotted wood and rusted metal into shelter. Still, we flinched with pain and shivered with cold as he continued to hammer as many nails through his palms as into the roof.
Of course, someone had to argue. This time it was Johan. “We could be using that lumber for firewood.” He was six-foot-five, clean-shaven even on the coldest winter days and as overweight as anyone could get in Telenkov. He naturally appointed himself Mayor. No one else really wanted the job. The Polish-French businessman found his way into the Ukraine after the 1917 revolution, then wouldn’t, or couldn’t, leave. He never told us why.
Johan didn’t talk much, but he screamed a lot. He didn’t really understand that in Telenkov we expected people of the lowest character to be in the highest political positions. Maybe that was why we always had rotten rulers. Maybe it was just something about being Ukrainian or, as were supposed to now call ourselves, “Soviet.”
“The wood you wasted trying to fix these roofs could heat ten houses for a week. That’s two hundred and thirty thousand kilocalories of heat. Do you know how much heat is in two hundred and thirty thousand kilocalories?” Johan continued. He tried to convince us with more mathematics, a lingering effect of the days when he was an investment banker. But no one in Telenkov cared about banking or understood much mathematics.
“The horses,” Sergei grumbled.” There wasn’t an inch of skin on Sergei that wasn’t covered by hair, except on his head, which he always kept covered, even in private, so I was told. “We could have used the horses for meat this year. They were getting old and had no more than one or two more winters left in them anyway. If I get my hands on whoever stole them, I’ll kill him.”
Elena looked down. As Sergei’s wife, she had to do what he commanded, especially in public. What she did at the corral gate a few months earlier was brave, and smart. Elena was one of the most beautiful women in Telenkov, but always thought she was the ugliest. Her eyes were big, making her face look small, but her soul was bigger than life.
Elena hoped that the hay and winter grass in the bluffs would be enough to sustain the village horses, and that the animals would have enough sense to hide from people until cold weather and hot tempers blew over.
Elena told only her two most trusted friends about the hiding place she found for the horses, the faithful beasts who even the always-angry Sergei loved more than any other people in the village. But, like vitality, poverty and character, secrets were valued in Telenkov, and well kept. Or so Elena hoped as the supply trucks from Moscow continued to come through the Ukraine empty and return overloaded with supplies.
We were told that it was an emergency situation. That Comrade Stalin needed all the food the Ukraine could produce to build a Socialist Paradise. Comrade Stalin was not someone to be argued with. We feared him more than any other Russian, maybe because his roots were not Russian, a public fact we were not supposed to know. We were more frightened about what had happened to us, and why God had allowed us to keep living in a winter when there was so much dying everywhere else. Perhaps a special torture awaited us at the hands of Stalin on earth, and the devil in hell. But some of us, like Anna, always knew that it was better to do, rather than to be done to. And we all had to be ready for the guest who was coming.
Our guest was, in title, the Bolshevik officer in charge of our village. In reality, he was a mirror that reflected our souls. His fate, and ours, would depend on how dignified we could appear, and how courageous we could be.
Anna folded up fragments of what used to be silk Parisian undergarments into napkins, placing them under the polished forks and spoons. Tasha was not happy about her family treasures being window-dressed by someone with Anna’s reputation and unofficially recognized profession. But Tasha realized that Anna knew when to provide for a man’s needs, and when to not satisfy his desires. Tasha also realized that if we fought each other, the only winners would be the Soviet authorities and the Ukrainian winter. Besides, Anna was part of the communal effort to keep Telenkov alive, whether we, or she, liked it or not.
No one knew where Anna had come from, or whether she was motivated by lust, love or a will to survive. Maybe it was all three at once.
More mumbling built up into more arguing. It was always the same, even in the “good” seasons after 1922. We would complain about too much rain, or too little rain, often at the same time. We complained, worried and argued with God, something the atheists were very good at. But some of us just kept working.
By the time the table was set, Nicholi had patched up the roof, the way HE wanted it fixed, ignoring how many kilocalories of heat he wasted. The lumber belonged to him more than anyone else, anyway. It was scrap wood, taken from what was left of the Soviet Army wagons that had been stranded in the village. A very large number of wagons mysteriously broke a spoke or an axle when they came into Telenkov, and Nicholi was very skillful in making fixable wagons look unfixable to suspicious Bolshevik officers.
The duty-bound soldiers who volunteered to remain behind waiting for repairs rarely returned home to Moscow, Kiev or Leningrad. If they did, they brought back no news about what was really going on behind closed doors and downward-looking eyes in Telenkov.
Telenkov was one of the most popular unknown villages in the Ukraine. What really happened that winter could only be understood from the heart. From a Telenkovian heart. You see, we were a simple people. A practical people. And tied to the ways of the land. Or maybe we weren’t…
Easter came early that year. We weren’t supposed to be Christians, now that we were liberated from our bondage to the Church. To the militant Soviets, it was my birthday we were celebrating. To the more intellectual Bolsheviks, we were celebrating a Festival Day from “pagan” times, when the Ukraine honored God and the Earth at the same time, something that we still did, despite Father Dimitri’s threats about going to hell with the other pagans, a term which included Jews, Moslems and sometimes Roman Catholics. His long hair and beard made Father Dimitri look like a Saint when you obeyed the commandments he passed down. His bloodshot eyes threw fire at you when you defied his authority. Father Dimitri’s power over us came from two sources. He was one of the only people in our village who could read, and the only one who claimed to have God’s mandate behind each of his opinions.
What we believed about any Deity didn’t matter anyway, especially then. We came to Church to pray with each other, not to God. You came with an open heart, a dedication to better yourself in the future and a set of cotton balls inside your ears so that the painful off-tune singing of the person next to you didn’t drive you insane.
Finally, the table was set and all the decorations were in place. According to tradition, the wind whisked the consciousness of those who had faith into the realm of the Spirits, and those who did not have faith into the world of imagination.
Visiting our feast were the ghosts of many uninvited, and unanticipated, Spirits. We still had meat on our ribs, a situation which was not so in the other Ukrainian communities which had been starved to death by February. Why were we allowed to survive when so many others died? Were we blessed by God, or did we make a deal with the Devil to save our bodies, losing our souls in the process?
Finally, someone mentioned the one word that was on our minds. “Major Rusmonski.” It was Elena who had the courage to break the silence this time. “Will he be with us today?”
All eyes turned to me. It was my job to deal with the District Commander. We had an election and took a vote. It was a split, half for and half against. As the town worrier, and the person who knew the Major best, it was left to me.
“Well, is he going to be here or not?” Johan asked, his authoritative eyes showing a fear that he had never revealed in public before.
There was a knock on the door. I knew it would be coming, and that things between us and the Major would never be the same again once we encountered who, or what, was on the other side. It was Judgment Day on Earth, for ALL of us.
I found myself remembering how things came to this, hoping to understand why, so I could prepare myself for the fate which I had inflicted on the only real friends I ever had.