Nonfiction by Yuliia Vereta

The year is 1999.  I am 6 years old and our family like hundreds and thousands of other families is trying to survive ‘the rough 90s’, that’s what it will be called decades later.  Several years have already passed after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, though I am too small yet to understand what it means and what it used to mean to people. I know one thing for sure, I was born in independent Ukraine, which one day will be great again, though my family is not yet happy to live in it; the Soviets gave us all we had. Though grandma says it was after they took from us all we had.

We are sitting in the small kitchen, my grandparents and I. My mom has a night shift tonight, she is a nurse. Three of us are gathered around the table with the majestic kerosene lamp on top, our only source of bright light for next several hours. It’s Thursday, and Thursday is the day of rotating power outage. Just like Tuesday and sometimes Wednesday. My mom says we have no light because our country has to save money. Our family always pays electricity bills, though there are some families that cannot afford that and who stay with minimum light even when there is no power cut.

I watch the lamp wick releasing the weak stream of smoke that comes out the glass tube. I know it’s very hot, I am not allowed to touch it. I am also prohibited from reading or drawing with this light. Everybody is certain it’s bad for my eyes. They don’t know yet that I will start wearing glasses at the age of ten. We all listen to the radio playing the patriotic song in Ukrainian. My grandma doesn’t like it, neither the song nor the language. She is the typist at the military warehouse, dealing with papers covered with railway car numbers and lists. She makes too many mistakes in Ukrainian and has to retype the papers all the time. She speaks Russian, curses in Russian and, I am sure, dreams in Russian. She doesn’t like what’s going on. She doesn’t know yet, but she will never write in error-free Ukrainian until her very death twenty years from this time. She reads the new release of the cookbook, the pastry section. She is surely allowed to read with this light. She is actually the one who gives permissions, she is the law.

My granddad is cracking the walnuts with a hammer; grandma’s friend will sell them in the market next week. Grandpa is a welder at the railway and loves any kind of manual work. At times he sings along the songs coming from the radio. He knows almost all of them. He was born in a small Ukrainian village not far from our town, unlike my grandma, who is the daughter of Polish immigrants that were fleeing from World War II. She will never know that in a couple of years after her death my mother and I will move to Poland and stay there.

The walnut tree is the biggest tree we have in our garden. It was growing there long before my great grandparents built their house here. After the Soviets knocked that house down they built the tall block of flats and distributed them between people working at the military warehouse. We got two of those. We were pretty lucky to have them and lucky to be allowed to keep the garden. It is everybody’s garden now, but people don’t pick the fruits from our trees. We conserve them a lot. ‘The winter is long’ my grandparents always say. We have the whole basement and three pantries full of three-liter glass jars filled with conserved vegetables, fruits and jams. Grandma is scared that the variety of products in she shops we have now are not for long. She said that some time ago there was no food in the store even if people had money to buy it. I don’t know why it happened, but I am glad we have a sack of flour and sugar in the wardrobe.

The wick is slowly turning smaller, it fades away. When it flickers my granddad rotates the pin and makes it longer, then keeps cracking the walnuts and transferring them to faceted glass. When the glass gets full he sheds them onto the newspaper page and packs tying it with a thread. Then he starts another glass. From time to time he checks the titanium boiler furnace and throws there more firewood. It gives us hot water and heating. It’s good that we have it. My another grandma doesn’t have any boiler, I don’t like visiting her. Every time we go there my mom makes me wear three pairs of wool socks, but, truly speaking, they don’t help.

My grandma turns page after page. When she reads carefully she always sticks out the tip of her tongue. She is very concentrated now. She is looking for the new recipes to try out and if they turn good those meals will have the chance to appear on our Christmas table. For grandma Christmas is a very big deal. She believes that every family should have at least twelve meals on their Christmas table. I think some families don’t have that much, but grandma said that God loves all of us, no matter how many dishes we have. That’s what they say in the church too. They say that God loves all of us and that we should all love God too. But I think grandpa doesn’t love God that much. He never goes to church. He says he likes Stalin. I don’t remember who that is but I know what he looks like. Grandpa has the huge portrait of Mr. Stalin in the store room outside, on the most conspicuous place. He carefully sweeps off the dust from its frame every time when going to take something from there, like a nail or a screwdriver. Grandma did not allow him to place the portrait in the apartment. She says Mr. Stalin was not a good person and that he sent my great grandparents very-very far in the cold snowy forest to do hard work, because they had too much money. Probably it’s not always good to have much money.

She turns another page of the cookbook and switches her look to the stove. She checks on it all the time. All the four burners are on; the blue gas flowers heat the huge pan standing on them. It is the biggest sauce pan we have. I think I would be able to fit in it together with all my toys. It is used on the rare occasions only. Today we do it because the Christmas is coming and we need to buy a fir tree. But grandpa’s friend who sells the trees will not take money. The brass metal tube at the very bottom of the pan releases unpleasant smell and a thin trickle of liquid that fills the glass jar standing under it on the kitchen stool. When the jar gets full grandma takes a small funny thermometer and puts it in the liquid. The thing pops up on the surface and doesn’t drawn. She takes a precise look at it and with a satisfied face puts another jar on the stool. I am not allowed to tell anyone that we do it. Grandpa says we will have big problems if anybody finds out that we distill alcohol at home. Nobody from our family drinks it, but there are certain people who prefer it instead of money. Grandpa says that vodka is ‘the stable currency’ at where we live. We never have it at home though. After the thing is done, the pan returns to the locked pantry and grandpa takes all the jars somewhere else. Last time we did it when we needed roof slates for our country house. I like our country house, in summer and autumn we go there almost every Saturday, but never in winter. The layer of snow is so high that we simply cannot make the way.

Suddenly the song coming out from the radio gets interrupted by several repeating tones. I know what comes next. The lady’s voice says ‘It’s 9 o’clock in Kyiv’. It’s time to go to bed. Leaving the kitchen I say good night to grandma, who is precisely staring at the liquid in the plate she just fired to check how long it’s going to burn. In a couple of minutes I lay in my feather-bed covered with the thick blanket made of the camel wool, all way up to my chin. Grandpa kisses me good night and goes back to the kitchen, leaving the bedroom door open. I hear them turning off the radio. Grandpa doesn’t crack the nuts anymore. The floor squeaks as he goes to sleep. Every minute or two I hear my grandma turn another page. I can’t sleep. I just lay there silently and wonder what present I will get for Christmas, staring into the darkness. After some time the street outside gets light, the streetlamps turn yellow bright. The power is back. I hope they will not cut it on Christmas Eve; we have colorful garlands with tiny lamps. Together with balls and plastic snowflakes they are stored in the big cardboard box on the wardrobe. That box was a packing of the old TV-set that we used to have long time ago. The box says ‘Rainbow’, in big fat letters. It is pretty confusing to me, though, as the TV we have is black-and-white.

Year 2000 is just around the corner, in less than a month we will all live in the whole new epoch, the new millennium, in this strong brave world. It will be the year when the Ukrainian president will abolish the death penalty and permanently stop using the Chernobyl nuclear power plant 14 years after its explosion; the year when Vladimir Putin will be elected as the President of Russia for the very first term and ratify the treaty on the complete cessation of nuclear tests; the year when the scientists in the UK, USA and Italy will officially announce the beginning of experiments on human cloning.

But I know nothing about it yet and even after it happens it will be too complicated for me to understand. The only thing I think of is the black-and-white TV-set ‘Rainbow’ and the hope that the Christmas lights will be bright.

Yuliia Vereta is a young writer from Ukraine, traveling the world for inspiration from other cultures for her short stories, poetry, creative non-fiction and whatever else that can comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable. She has works in print and online in Litro Magazine, Genre: Urban Arts, Penultimate Peanut Magazine, The Valley Voices and The McGuffin. She received the 2018 City of Rockingham Short Story Award (Australia) and was a finalist for the 2019 Poetry Matters Project as well as 2019 Hessler Poetry Contest.