The Silence of Trees


THERE IS A UKRAINIAN LEGEND THAT ONCE EACH YEAR, on the night of Ivana Kupala, a magical flower blooms in the heart of the forest. Anyone who finds it will be granted their heart’s desire: the ability to hear the trees whisper and watch them dance, the power to make anyone fall in love with them, the magic to make barren lands bear fruit and barren women fruitful. It is a single red flower with several names: tsvit paporot, liubava, chervona ruta. The legendary bloom can grant wishes, open the doorway to the past, and awaken spirits to visit with loved ones.

I looked for the tsvit paporot when I was a young girl. I searched for it in many places, in different countries, over a lifetime. I eagerly went into the unknown, looking for magic, for mystery, for adventure. But sometimes magic finds you. Sometimes it comes in the least likely of forms: in a small black river rock, a deck of hand-painted cards, a sprig of purple herb or an envelope from home.

Just when you think that life is slowing down, magic happens. The universe sends you a message, like a tsvit paporot on your doorstep. The question is: what do you wish for?

At the age of sixteen, more than anything, I wanted to have my fortune told by the mysterious vorozhka, the Gypsy woman who camped with her people on the outskirts of our Ukrainian village. Mama disapproved, but so many young women had gone before me and come back with astonishing stories. The vorozhka told Mariyka that she would travel across the sea in search of kisses heavy with perfume. She told Darka that she would find many children gathered around her feet on her father’s farm. Even Olena—who dreamt of going to school in Lviv to study languages—went to see the vorozhka. She told Olena that she would soon ride a train heavy with hope. After finishing my chores, I would sit with Khvostyk purring in my lap and dream of the vorozhka’s predictions.

After my best friend, Sonya, went to see the Gypsy, I thought Mama would finally agree.

“Mama, Sonya’s mother let her see the vorozhka. Her brother even kept watch as she walked through the woods to the camp. And do you know what the vorozhka told her? She told Sonya that soon she would see everything lit up around her. That the night would be broken by light, and she would run into the arms of her husband. Who else could this be but Yaroslav? He often tends his father’s sheep at night and carries a lantern. Mama, I need to go see the vorozhka to learn about my future. All the other girls have gone.”

Mama never looked up from the bread dough. Her strong hands squeezed the dough even harder as she said in that tone reserved for scolding little children:

“Nadya, you will not go. I forbid it.” Mama bit down on her lower lip—something she always did when concentrating. “Gypsies are dirty. They steal, and they lie. What kind of life is that? They have no home. No home, Nadya. Why do you think this is?”

Mama rubbed her brown eyes, leaving flour on her brow. She looked me in the eyes. “Why? Because they take all they can and leave before people realize they have been fooled. We are not fools. This vorozhka is a fake. She performs tricks, uses pretty words to steal money from hardworking people.”

Mama returned to her kneading. “When I was a girl, they came too. Marko Pavlyshyn had two cows and one horse stolen. Marusia Ivanovych had five chickens stolen that same night. The next morning when they went to find the Gypsies, they were gone. Coincidence? No, Nadya. Gypsies are dirty; they ride on a bad wind. You stay away from them and their enchantments.”

I ran to the barn in tears and hid behind the cows. I wanted to learn about my future. I wished to experience magic and mystery, as in the stories where the young girl, Vasylyna, would go to see the witch, Baba Yaga, in the forest. Yes, like Vasylyna the Brave, I wanted an adventure.

So on the night of the new moon, I had Gypsies on my mind as I walked to the barn to leave an offering for the dvorovyi, the yard spirits. The early spring sky was heavy with stars to light my path. Around me, the howling of wolves and whirr of bat wings traveled on the wind. It had just become my task to leave the offerings, and even though I had watched Mama many times before, I was nervous. What if I did something wrong and the spirits allowed harm to come to the cattle?

I pushed open the heavy door and peered into the blackness, permitting starlight to wrestle with the shadows. Each corner held secrets: each shape shifted in the light. I could feel air on the back of my neck. Breeze or breath? I didn’t check. As I walked through the barn, I cursed the crunch of my feet on straw. Sleeping spirits did not like to be disturbed. I did not want to find their glowing eyes peering at me in the darkness.

At the eastern corner, I stopped and knelt on the dirt floor. Hay cut into my bare knees; the smell of manure stung my nostrils. I lifted three slices of Mama’s morning bread out of the napkin I carried and from my pocket, pulled out the sheep’s wool I had gathered earlier that day. I cleaned a spot on the ground and set down the napkin, carefully placing on it the bread and wool.

I opened my palms above the offering. Then I focused for a moment on my breath, steadied my heart, and collected my voice. “Dvorovyi, friendly neighbors, I offer you these gifts.”

I folded my hands, placed them in my lap, and closed my eyes. “Be kind to the cattle and sheep, and watch over them. I thank you.”

I knelt in silence for a moment, hearing the scurrying of feet or claws or paws on straw. I listened to the door creak and bang against the barn wall, the soft neighing of horses, the distant chorus of creatures awakened by darkness. I could feel movement all around me.

A gust of wind rushed into the stable and caught in my hair, tossing it up and into my face. Still I remained seated with eyes closed, my hands motionless in my lap. Only when the wind ran away to other farms, when I felt the calm restored—only then did I open my eyes and rise to my feet.

I locked the door behind me and stepped toward the house. My fingertips tingled, and the air seemed lighter, brighter than before. I could not see the house from the barn. It was set back under the trees, but I saw smoke from the stove above the treetops. Mama was probably brewing tea. My stomach growled, and I hurried toward home knowing that Mama would be preparing a snack. But before I reached the house, the winds returned carrying with them beautiful violin music—music that suggested mystery and evoked the vorozhka and the magic of her camp. The music tempted me to follow. Tato and Mama would expect me to linger outside. “Our Nadya lives in dreams,” they always said. So I could probably steal away unnoticed for a few moments. I turned away from the house and toward the wind, urged on by the music.

Running quickly through the trees, I found myself at the edge of the forest. As I stood hidden by thick branches, I saw a woman dancing in the shadows, a whirlwind of long layered skirts. Her blouse was buttoned to the neck, and rows of beads caught shades of crimson, copper and gold from the flames as they rose and fell in rhythm. The music mingled with the cries of the forest, carried by the winds into the trees to blend with the running waters of the nearby stream.

In the distance, a man stared into the woods and sharpened his blade, which shone ruby red in the firelight. Although I knew he could not see me, I suddenly remembered the stories Mama had told me about Gypsies who kidnap young women to sell into slavery in far away lands. I shivered, savoring the thought of strong arms carrying me into a Gypsy wagon filled with perfumes and silks and furs. I would be forced to travel to exotic places where people played with monkeys and rode on elephants. They would teach me to dance and dress me in long flowing silk gowns and gold chains. People would watch me and other women perform seductive dances, and they would shower our feet with coins and pearls. I would never have to dig in the dirt or clean up after the horses and cows. Mama and Tato would never again tell me what I could and could not do.

Mama and Tato! They would soon notice that I was gone. I turned away from the camp and faced the woods, angry for having to leave. How could this beautiful music be evil? This sad melody, so soft and familiar, that slid across my body and pulled at my chest with bittersweet secrets … how could the music be “bad” when it filled me with dreams of dancing and adventure? And how could the woman who danced like flames on the wind be “dirty”?

Straining to keep the music with me as long as I could, I stumbled through the forest. It seemed to take twice as long to get home as it had to find the camp, but I wanted to remember each turn so I could find my way again. I went to sleep that night planning my visit to the vorozhka. My dreams were filled with clapping hands, stomping boots and music so powerful that it painted pictures in the clouds and lifted me to dance on air.

Intoxicated by the chords that danced in my memory, I waited impatiently for the next full moon, watching for the crescent to fill. When it finally absorbed all the milk of heaven, I lay waiting for my parents to go to sleep, watching as shadows poked their heads out from corners and then disappeared when I blinked them away.

I watched Mama and Tato’s nightly rituals from across the room, all the while pretending to be asleep in the bed my sisters and I shared. At one time, four of us had shared the bed—before Maria, the oldest, married and died in childbirth. The little bed was still tight with three of us tucked inside, and I was always stuck in the middle.

Mama let down her hair and brushed it gently. Tato sharpened his knives for hunting. After he finished, he read Mama one of her favorite poems: “Seven Strings” by Lesya Ukrainka. Lesya’s words gave me courage as I waited for my parents to sleep:

“I have faith in that magic, faith in those powers,
Because with my heart I know them as true,
As oracle for these mysteries, these precious fantasies
With my sincerest heart, I welcome …”

My eyes grew heavy as I struggled to stay awake, lulled to sleep by Tato’s voice and the sound of weary fingers rubbing against onion skin pages.

When I awoke, the room was silent except for occasional sighs of sleep. I carefully disentangled myself from my little sister Halya’s embrace. She clung tightly to my waist, her head against my shoulder, as if I could keep her safe from the dreams that left her whimpering. I eased out of her arms and stepped onto the floor. Our little house had no room for secrets, so I moved with cat’s feet to gather everything I needed. A cloud slipped away from the full moon and her light shone bright on my sisters’ faces.

Laryssa lay on her side, facing the window. Little moans escaped her lips every few minutes, and she unconsciously wiped away strands of hair from her mouth and nose. Her beautiful long hair—brown with golden streaks from the sun—lay around her like Aunt Katia’s hair when I found her drowned in the river. I shook away the memory and crossed myself for luck.

Halya lay curled in a ball, filling in the space I had left. Two tight, thin braids poked out from her head. She was sad that her hair was thin, like Tato’s. I hoped she would not be troubled by the nightmares that usually interrupted her sleep. I wouldn’t be there to hold her while she trembled, to sing her back into dreams if she awoke screaming.

Deep in my stomach I felt a tugging toward them, back into the warmth of the down blanket Mama made for us last Christmas. I had never disobeyed Mama or Tato before, and I hoped to return before they awoke. I had a question that drove my feet into boots warm from sitting beside the fire, a question that compelled my hands to wrap my babushka tightly around my head, a question that drew me deep into the night.

I stepped outside, clutching in my mitten the small black stone I had found on the riverbank after we buried Mama’s youngest sister Katia. The night after her burial, I had convinced my older sisters, Maria and Laryssa, to take me to the river to offer flowers to the rusalky.

According to legend, all drowned women would be transformed into one of these river spirits, beautiful maidens who bewitched passersby with their voices. I imagined Aunt Katia as a rusalka, face aglow with moonlight, delicate shards of music slipping off her tongue to pierce their hearts and lure them to their deaths.

While Maria and Laryssa leaned against the trees talking about how Mama could not sleep from grief, I set the flowers on the water. Then I saw the glittering stone on the bank, a piece of night sky filled with stardust that settled perfectly into my palm when I lifted it from the river. I felt Aunt Katia near me and heard silver bells on the waves, so I carried the stone home and set it beside our bed.

Although she did not tell me until I was older, Mama had a dream that same night. In it, Aunt Katia’s ghost stood over my bed, touched my forehead and said, “This one hears my voice on the night air. I will watch over her.”

Mama said that Aunt Katia would do all she could to protect me. I need only follow the river.

So I kept the stone with me for good luck, which is why I carried it the night I went to see the vorozhka. It rested in my palm beside a tiny gold earring I had found along the path to Sonya’s house last month. The earring was going to be my payment for the vorozhka’s fortunetelling.

After a last look at my sleeping family, I turned away, tightly clutching my black stone. I focused on that stone and on the moon lighting the path as I walked past the barn toward the woods. I remembered the stories Baba had told me while I sat on the floor watching her embroider beautiful red and black patterns on cloths; stories about the lisovyk who lived in dense forests. I could still hear her voice in my ear:

“Little Nadya, you must always be careful in the woods, because that is where the lisovyk lives, and he is a tricky spirit. Why, he casts no shadow! The light of the moon is swallowed in his long white beard. His blood is blue like the winter sky, so his skin glows with a deep blue light that you can see in the heavy darkness of the forest. His big green eyes will open wide when he sees you, and if you see him they POP out!

“Yes, yes, the lisovyk is tricky. He changes his size a hundred times in one night. One minute he is tall like the oak, and the next minute, he hides behind a mushroom. You will see the light flicker from his skin as he runs around the trees. He wears his clothes backwards and puts the left shoe on the right foot and the right shoe on the left.

“But do not laugh, my little mouse, because the lisovyk is proud. He will lead you in circles and make you lose your way in the forest. If this ever happens, listen to me, this is what you must do. Sit down on the trunk of an old tree. Take off all your clothes and put them on backwards. Put the left shoe on the right foot and the right shoe on the left. This is important, little one, do not forget the shoes. Only then will the lisovyk lead you where you want to go. But do not laugh at him if you see him, or you will be lost in the forest forever.”

I smiled, remembering Baba Hanusia, Mama’s mother, who lived with us until she died. I missed her stories and her warm hugs. As I passed the creek, I heard the murmur of water against the rocks, like whispering voices. I began to hum softly to myself so the rusalky who lived in the creek would not enchant me with their songs. Aunt Katia could not protect me from the spells of her watery sisters.

Luckily, Sonya had told me I would need to bring the vorozhka an offering. She also told me that the Gypsy woman would be sitting near the fire during the night of the full moon, because it was her job to keep the rest of the Gypsies safe on nights when magic was very strong. I clutched the stone in my mitten, trying to avoid the dark corners of the forest, which seemed to swell against the glow of the moon.

The hairs on the back of my neck rose, and an eerie silence grew from the shadows, broken only by my quiet humming. As the leaves broke their hold on the sky, I saw the shudder of a campfire, but no beautiful woman sat beside it. My eyes adjusted to the light as I watched flames twist around the wood. Smoke smeared my view of the camp into a haze. I tried to blink into clarity the smudged impressions of ragged horses beside wagons, paint flaked and peeling. In my ears, neighing blended with snores and sighs from nearby tents. I closed my eyes to savor the spiced breath of the night: spilled wine, woodsy musk, and budding night flowers.

Then behind me, fingers dug into my shoulders and spun me around. I struggled not to fall. I opened my eyes and saw the face of the Gypsy woman; the one I had seen dancing several weeks before, but somehow she looked different. Where were her beautiful clothes? She wore mismatched rags, like those my mother would sometimes wear around the house: a torn shirt of blue and white flowers, a skirt of red and yellow stripes. The colors, which may have once been bright, were now muted by blotches of dirt. Her hair hung in heavy clumps around her thin face. I dropped my gaze to her bare feet, so tiny. Smaller than little Halya’s feet. How could a grown woman have such small feet? Then I noticed the blood.

Her feet were covered with scratches. The stains on her clothes were a mixture of dirt and blood, fresh blood that continued to spread across the dull patches of color. Her torn blouse revealed bruises on her neck and chest. And her face! Even in the dark, I could see blotches covering her cheeks, forehead and chin. What had happened to this woman? We had both walked alone through the woods.

I wanted to ask if she had been hurt, offer some kind of help. Should I extend my arm for her to lean on or give her the handkerchief tucked inside my boot? Instead, I stood in silence, staring into black eyes that watched me with contempt and rage.

She pushed me, then dropped her hold. Stepping back, she wrapped her arms around her chest and raised her head to stare into the night beyond my right shoulder. Firelight caught her features, and beneath the dirt and blood, I saw a plum crescent birthmark that stretched from the corner of her left eyebrow to the crease of her lips. I took a deep breath, and the Gypsy brought her hand to her face, catching my stare.

Baba told me to respect those who had been marked for a special life, even if the rest of the world hated and feared them. Baba would stretch the neck of her blouse open to show me the tiny brown foot-shaped birthmark on her shoulder—caused by the “guardian angel who stood there when she was born.” The Gypsy had also been born with a sign setting her apart from the others, marking her for a life of fortunetelling and magic.

Russian words heavy with a foreign accent seemed to grow in her mouth until she was forced to gasp them out: “Why have you come here?” Avoiding my eyes, she stared above and beyond me. The only words I could mutter in my Ukrainian tongue were those I had practiced every night for two weeks while lying in my bed:

“I came to have my fortune told. Can you h-h-help me?”

The wind shifted, bringing her smell to me: sweat, blood, urine. Heavy scents, sour and metallic like those that filled the barn after Tato butchered runts of the litter. She exhaled deeply and rubbed her hands along her arms.

“Of course.” She laughed to herself and looked up to the moon. “Of course that is why she came. To see the ‘Gypsy’ in the forest.” Her hands smoothed her skirts and settled into fists.

“Are you frightened? Scared of the lady covered in blood?” She began to wave her hands in circular motions and lowered her voice to a raspy whisper. “Ooh, this ‘Gypsy’ must have been doing something ‘bad’ in the woods. Black magic. Maybe dancing with the dark god?” She stopped for a long second, then looked into my eyes.

“Are you sure you should be here, gadji?”

Fear blew through me, catching the cold in my bones, strengthening my shiver. For a moment, I heard Mama’s voice as if she stood beside me: “Be careful, Nadya. Come home. Don’t trust her, she is a Gypsy. It is all a trick. You will disappear into the night, and I will never see you again.” I clenched my fists and bit my lower lip.

The vorozhka raised her eyebrows and took a step toward me. “What is the matter, peasant girl? Are you scared that I am going to have my brothers steal you?” She wiped blood off her lips, rubbed her eyes.

Then she stepped around me and closer to the fire. She was shivering. Dark circles hung under her eyes, and blood streamed in thin lines from the right side of her temple down her face. Her Gypsy face: hollow and full of shadows … and young. Not much older than my Ukrainian face: lighter and rounder, surrounded by brown hair woven into one neat braid.

“That is all you girls come here for. To see the mysterious Gypsy camp. To have your fortunes told.” She spit on the ground. “Your people only come here when they want something. Or someone to blame.”

I stood watching her as she rubbed her hands up and down her arms, arms covered with fine, black hair. I whispered, “What happened?”

She lowered her eyes. Her voice angry as she mocked me: “What happened?”

Looking around, she calmed herself and lowered her voice. “What happened? New soldiers arrived in the neighboring village. They decided to explore the woods—”

“Soldiers,” I interrupted, “What kind of soldiers?”

She looked into my eyes. Again the hairs on my neck rose.

“Soldiers are soldiers. They fight. Their life is war. And we … what are we in war? Things to be moved, broken, used, thrown away, claimed by whichever side comes through our camp.”

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