View from the Bluff

I was born during the harvest, under a large oak at the edge of our family’s best field. The sun was high in the sky, the air still and hot. Cicadas were thrumming all around us.

My body was small. Delicate. Unmistakably female.

Mama peered closer, afraid I was a trick of the light, a fancy of her imagination, but I proved real enough. After six sons, two of whom were married and with sons of their own, she had finally been blessed with a girl child.

A girl child.  She felt the shape and weight of the words on her tongue. Words she wanted to shout across the field, toss up to the sky, but couldn’t. Even whispering them could be calamitous. So she sat back on her heels. Crossed herself three times. Thanked God for His gift, the Diva Mariya for her intercession, her long-dead mother for keeping her promise.

Mama wiped my face and body with the only rushnyk she had, still damp from the bread she had wrapped it around that morning, and wound me in her shawl. She smeared a little black earth on my forehead. Brushed my lips with a crust of bread. Placed me in the basket with the remnants of the kovbasa and goat cheese.

I like to think my first glimpse of the world was framed by the embroidery on the tablecloth she draped over the handle, that the air I first breathed was sharp with wheat.

Mama did not look in the basket again. After a brief rest, she returned to the section of the field where my father and brothers were working. Wading through the stalks of wheat, the joy flowing through her, seeping out of her pores like sweat, only sweeter smelling. Just another mouth to feed, she muttered under her breath, another crying baby to disturb our sleep. I don’t care if she lives or dies, she declared, louder this time. How else could she protect me from evil spirits when her joy was drawing them out of every tree, field, and ravine? When fearlessness only invited calamity?

My father and brothers sang as they worked. Mama joined in, her voice strengthening with each step. The stalks of wheat shiver, as far as the eye can see. While the sickle whispers: yield to me, yield to me...

She placed the basket behind the last stook and started to rake, planting her feet wide apart to steady herself. She chased Mitya away when he lifted the tablecloth to look at me. Since no one else came near the basket or asked about the birth, she was able to hoard our surprise a while longer.

My mother thought everything about my birth was propitious – the rich dark soil beneath us, the stand of ancient oaks, the stalks of ripened wheat. Even the noise from the cicadas. My grandmother thought it was a disgrace.  “Does Osip not have enough sons to bring in the harvest,” Baba complained as everyone returned from the fields, “without Olena having to give birth outside like a poor peasant’s wife?”

Baba reached for the basket. Mama veered away, pushed past my father and brothers, and strode across the courtyard. She locked herself in her treatment room and when she stayed there for two days, the family thought there was something wrong with me, that I bore the marks of a child born late in a mother’s life. Except for Mitya who had already figured out I was a girl. Not just any girl, but the first in three generations of Stetsenkos.

The village priest delayed my baptism for a few days to attend to his own field. So when my godparents brought me back from church and Baba asked them what name the priest had bestowed on her latest grandson, she was astonished to hear it was Nastasiya.

“Why didn’t you tell me it was a girl?” she screamed at Mama, in front of our guests.

Mama offered no explanation. She wanted to savour the name while it was still fresh. Nastasiya was her beloved mother’s name, which Father Stepan could not have known as she came from another village, a two-day ride away. It was one more omen. As if my birth had not been omen enough.

My father didn’t say a word. Not to Mama who had kept such a secret from him. Not to Baba who was berating him on his choice of a wife.

So here I am, the bit of yellow thread above the rim of the basket.  I’ve embroidered Mama raking, my father and brothers wielding their sickles, Oksana and Daryna tying and stacking the sheaves.

I’ve edged the cloth with oak leaves but I should have embroidered stalks of wheat, for wheat is more important than anything, I know that now, a truth as bitter as the bark of the oak tree.