In September, the foliage turned yellow and red. Bodies fell, clothed only in fear, into the ravine, the pit, the abyss.
Naked flesh on naked flesh, warm blood, excrement—hell stinking beneath sand and earth.
All night, the bonfires flared, smoke rising into God’s desolate kingdom; a hundred thousand souls and more, tracing runes between the stars.
Every evening after Vespers, as altar candles flickered, pious sisters hunched over stacks of newspapers in the cloister’s vaulted hall, scissors opening and closing, snip-snip, click-clack.
They’d warned the children not to play in the verboten ruin that separated Schloss Nymphenburg from their reinstated convent school. Lucifer could snatch them up and drag them to an inferno under the crater where an Allied bomb had hit the palace. The attack destroyed the royal chapel, converted by the Nazis to an infirmary, and Mater Sekundilla had perished, as did a nameless patient who’d survived the Eastern Front.
The school’s lavatory was an unlit purgatory: wet floors, no soap or towels, no toilet roll, only unfinished wooden boxes filled with squares of inky newsprint—reminders of the trivial deprivations of the recent war.
Wimpled nuns worked their rusty shears, and Jesus glared from His crucifix on the wall, begrudging His forgiveness, tallying each snip-snip, click-clack.
The name escaped my parents’ throats with a soft, fricative “G.” They’d christened me “Evgenia” in a ceremony at Saints Vladimir and Olga Cathedral, but always addressed me by the diminutive “Genia,” with the inflection that led people to assume they were mispronouncing the far more common “Jeannie.” My schoolteacher called me that in class, which made me feel pleasantly ordinary. She also suggested my parents stop speaking Ukrainian at home, warning them of the foreign accent I’d acquire. Never. My mother bristled. We lost everything else.
After the war, my parents rescued consonants, vowels, a trail of syllables. They spoke and prayed in their mother tongue, worshipped their God in a church erected by immigrants, and denied the concept of collective blame.
The hymns and litany of the Divine Liturgy resound in a gilded nave; the sun pierces stained glass windows exalting rulers and saints, The Blessed Virgin of the Cossacks, Kiev’s Golden Domes.
Illuminated by colored light, dust ascends into incense-filled air: ashes from across the ocean, from the ravine, the scar, the abyss, where flakes of white bone remain.
Genia Blum is a Swiss Ukrainian Canadian writer, translator, and dancer. Her work has appeared widely in literary journals, both online and in print, and she has received several Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net nominations. “Slaves of Dance,” based on excerpts from her memoir in progress, Escape Artists, was named a “Notable” in The Best American Essays 2019. Find @geniablum on Twitter and Instagram, or visit her website: www.geniablum.com.