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Under This Unbroken Sky

Spring: 1938


"We got some!” Ivan pokes his head out the hay-loft and holds the bucket up victoriously to his cousin Petro.

A motley clan of barn cats mew and whine as they wrap themselves around Petro’s skinny legs. Petro wheezes from the dust and hay. Ivan scrambles down the makeshift ladder with one hand, the bucket clanking at his side. He jumps the last rungs to the ground and with his free hand steadies the chipped crock plate that acts as a lid.

"How many?” Petro inquires, already on his hands and knees brushing aside a clearing in the hay for their loot. The cats crowd in close.

"More than one. It’s heavy.” Ivan sets the bucket down and carefully slides the plate aside an inch. The boys peer into the dark crack.

"Do you see any?” Petro asks.

Ivan tilts the bucket and a scurry of claws against metal narrows the cats’ eyes and straightens their tails. “Three.” Ivan bats a cat out of the way and reaches into the bucket. He pulls out a fat mouse by the tail and holds it high above the cats. “I’ll betcha the yellow one gets him. I’ll betcha my gopher skull.”

"For what?” Petro is always suspicious of his younger cousin’s wagers, since Ivan usually wins.

"Your wool socks.”

Petro ponders the odds carefully. Summer is coming and he won’t need the wool socks. Besides, the heel and toe are worn out. “Deal.”

An orange tabby pushes in, but a thin black female --- its teats hanging to the ground, malnourished from feeding yet another litter --- hisses back. She arches defiantly and swipes at the tabby’s nose, forcing it to retreat a foot.

"I bet the black one gets it,” Petro challenges. Ivan drops the flailing mouse into the fray.

For a moment, the mouse stands still. Frozen. The cats hesitate. The mouse blinks. It spins around and races between Ivan’s legs for the open field. Cats blur past in hot pursuit, followed by the barefoot boys screaming, “Get him, get him!”

The yellow tomcat reaches the mouse first and leaps. The mouse, sensing the airborne shadow, stops and careens off to the side. The cat lands with a heavy thud, its claws pierce the mouse’s tail, ripping off the tip. A matted calico, missing one ear and blind in one eye, jumps with surprise as the mouse scurries under its belly.

The black cat cuts a wide swath and pounces directly on the mouse. Its incisors gnash to crush the neck. “I win! I win!” Petro screams. The mouse twists and clambers up the cat, shakes itself loose, and hits the ground running, its leg injured.

"It’s over here!” hollers Ivan. The boys crash through the stubble.

The yellow tom skids across the muddy ground and slides onto the mouse, trapping it between its paws. The cat flips it into its mouth and crunches once, then drops it to the ground. The cat bats it with its paw. The mouse lies still, its feet twitching. The yellow cat growls a warning. The other cats slink back, except for the black one. It crouches on its belly, tail flicking.

"I win,” announces Ivan.

"It’s not over ’til it’s dead,” Petro states.

"It’s dead,” says Ivan. The boys crouch down low.

"It’s still breathing,” asserts Petro.

A heavy black leather boot crashes into the earth in front of them. The boys hear the mouse’s bones crush, see blood trickle out from under a man’s cracked sole.

Ivan and Petro look up against the noon sun, unable to discern the man’s features. Ivan stands and takes a step back to assess his adversary. The man’s eyes are sunken, a grizzle of gray whiskers shadow his face. His hair is long and oily. Filthy clothes hang off his skeletal frame.

Ivan runs for the barn, screaming, “Mama!”

Petro remains frozen where he squats, gasping for air. The man licks his chapped lips and speaks with a voice caked with dust:

&ldquot;Get up.”

But Petro doesn’t get up. He turns to the sound of a .22 being cocked. As does the man. Ivan’s five-year-old arms quiver from the weight of the gun: “Get off our land.”

Maria appears from behind the makeshift shack attached to the cabin. Her hands are raw from scrubbing bedclothes with lye and ice water. She looks to her son, his finger on the trigger. She looks at Petro, gulping for air. She looks to the man. A railway tramp.

"Whad you want?” she asks in broken English. “We no have nothing.” She repeats it in Ukrainian: “Nichoho nema.” There’s nothing left. The man looks to her and Maria sees his eyes. She sees past the face, past the weathered lines, past the dirt and grime, and into his eyes. “Teodor?” she asks. But she already knows the answer and starts to shake.

The man walks up to Ivan and takes hold of the barrel, waits for his son to unclench his grip. Teodor slips the rifle from the boy’s hands, ejects the bullet, and hands him back the gun.

The metal bucket crashes to its side, shattering the crock plate.

A blur of brown vanishes under the barn. The black cat with the swollen teats saunters away with the other mouse clenched between her jaws.


Somehow the children have fallen asleep . Maria drapes burlap bags over the ragged twine strung across the middle of the room, separating the sleeping quarters from the remaining few feet of living quarters. As always, she takes a moment to count them in their sleep. Five children snuggled together on one straw mattress. The girls and Ivan sleep curled into one another, while Myron lies lengthwise draped across their feet. At thirteen, he is getting too big to be sleeping with the girls. Five children, Maria counts, almost to assure herself that she hasn’t lost one during the day. Their breath is quiet and even. Maria hangs the last burlap sack.

No one spoke all day. They ate their meal of borsch and flatbread in silence. All eyes watched their father. Watched him scrape the bowl with his fingers once the flatbread was gone. Watched him guiltily take a second bowl. Watched him shovel the broth past his cracked lips, unable to slow himself down. Watched him roll a smoke, with the stash that Maria had saved for him almost two years earlier. Watched him inhale, eyes closed. Watched him exhale and open his eyes as if surprised to see them staring back at him. Watched him as they went to bed, as he sat outside staring into the night. No one said good-night. The children are asleep now, certain that when they wake up, the impostor will be gone.

Maria stokes the fire. A large pot of water boils.


Outside, Teodor is oblivious to the mosquitoes swarming his head. He exhales another long draw of smoke. He has forgotten to ask what day it is. Six hundred days and nights reduced to scratches on a wall. Four hundred and eighty thousand steps paced in an eight-foot by eight-foot cell. Five steps --- wall, five steps --- wall. One hundred and fifty steps shuffled down the corridor past the closed cell doors. Eyes to the floor. Eyes to the floor. The only sound the click of the guard’s boots and the chattering of leg irons.

Shiny Boots’s trouser cuffs were frayed at the back. The heels of his boots were rounded, more on the left than the right. Shiny Boots preferred the strap over the lash. He’d spread his feet apart for better stability. He had small feet. Teodor had to shorten his step not to overtake him and breach the mandatory six-foot distance.

Ten steps down the stone stairs. Eighty-five steps across the dirt yard to the iron gate groaning open. Six steps to the outside world. How many days ago was that? One hundred and eighty-six thousand steps. He takes another puff on the cigarette.

"I’m still here,” his voice rasps.

He hasn’t seen his sister, Anna, yet. She hasn’t come out, even though she’s just eight inches away on the other side of the log wall. Teodor saw her watching him as he followed Maria to the shack. At least, he saw the torn slip that serves as her curtain fall back into place. Now he can see light through the chinks, obscured intermittently by movement inside. Maybe it’s her children. Maybe it’s her. She’ll come to him in her own time. Teodor knows that she’s ashamed of him, but he can forgive her that. She took his family in. He owes her his life.

It was my grain. The words roll dull and hollow in his head, worn from the constant repetition. Come to the land of wheat. A hundred and sixty acres. Ten dollars is all it will cost. Come, they said. Thirteen days in the steerage of a ship crouched in vomit, piss, and shit with his wife and four children. Come.

A year renting the land, waiting for a homestead entry. Working as a field hand in exchange for the loan of an ax, a saw, a team of horses, and a plow. He signed a contract he couldn’t read. They said everything will be fine. You have three years to pay it back. Build a farm, clear the fields, dig a well, plant the seed. Learn English. The second year, lose the crop to hail. They give him more seed, add one dollar to the contract, shake his hand, and call him Ted.

Three weeks before harvest, they come for their money. Eleven dollars. They take it all --- the house, the barn, the shed, the lumber, the fields ripe with grain --- and say, “Leave.” It was August. The grain in those fields was worth sixty, seventy dollars.

He took one wagonload of seed. From his field, his sweat, his pay. One wagonload to start again. And they arrest him. It was my grain.

The words collapse into dust. He swallows. His tongue licks at parched lips.

Above, a wash of northern lights pulse green and white across the prairie sky. Below, a chorus of frogs croaks. Their song swells across the fields, reverberates in Teodor’s chest. Teodor listens, eyes almost shut. He leans against the shack, his smoke burning low between his fingers. He breathes in the space between him and the sky.

The frogs fall silent. The night has paused. Teodor is aware that he is holding his breath. He looks instinctively to the paddock. The scrawny cow chews compulsively on a fence pole, oblivious to the unsettling quiet. Teodor leans forward slightly, rooting his feet to the ground, ears straining, eyes squinting to penetrate the darkness. His muscles coiled, ready to fight or flee. Cautiously, a lone bullfrog picks up his refrain and soon a bevy of females answer.

Teodor breathes deep and flicks his smoke into the night. Spring has arrived swollen and impregnated by the retreating frost. He can smell her sweet decay. He can almost hear the earth heaving and groaning beneath his feet, opening herself wide to push her seedlings into light.

Teodor crouches down and places his hand against the cool ground. For a moment, he thinks he can feel her heart beating, but realizes it is his own pulse. This surprises him, because it means he is still alive. A movement catches his eye.

His sister’s side of the cabin is shrouded in darkness. The oil lamps have been blown out. And then Teodor sees Anna standing at the window, a few feet to the left of him. She doesn’t see him crouched in the shadows.

She is pale. Her face has lost its roundness. Her flesh clings to her bones. Dark circles heighten the sunken appearance of her eyes. Her hair, which she used to wear in braids coiled on either side, snaked with ribbons, is shorn and matted. She looks much older than the one year that separates them. Teodor remembers her eyes being icy blue. In the old country, boys had written poems about her eyes.

Anna stares straight ahead. Teodor wonders if she is looking for her useless husband. He hasn’t seen Stefan since his arrival. But there is something about the closeness of her gaze that convinces him that she isn’t looking into the night, or to the paddock, or at the sky. She is staring into her own reflection. Into her own eyes. Teodor wants to stand up and tell her that he is here. But Anna steps away from the window and disappears into the blackness.


Maria empties another pot of steaming water into the metal tub that serves as both bath and scalding tub for butchering chickens. She has no soap, no towels. She tears another strip of cloth from the remnants of a white linen skirt. Elaborate embroidery still adorns the hem.

She wore this skirt under her everyday skirt the night they escaped. The soldiers didn’t take clothes. They took horses, cows, weapons, tools, even the shovels. They tore down holy icons and nailed up posters of Stalin. They took the land and the grain and said, You own nothing. Those who refused to meet the harvest quotas were marched to open pits and shot. After that, the quotas were met. The penalty for concealing even a handful of wheat was death. A bounty was offered. Houses and barns were searched and the fields stripped until there was no more grain. Every day she had prayed to the Virgin Mother for Teodor not to fight back. To stay alive.

The soldiers would come, usually four at a time: two on horseback, two in the cart. They had a gramophone that they hand cranked and Stalin’s voice boomed the praises of collectivism. Then they would go door to door until the cart bulged with sacks of wheat. They carried pistols, but the starving don’t fight back. Theirs was always the last house searched. Teodor had an arrangement with the soldiers, who had learned long ago that he made the best homebrew.

He was allowed to keep a pound of wheat, but if the liquor’s quality ever degraded or the quantity diminished, the arrangement would be terminated. Maria hated Teodor for robbing her babies of even the smallest morsel of food. The soldiers would go through the motions of throwing their few belongings out the door and driving pitchforks into the thatched roof for contraband, while Teodor disappeared into the night and returned with half a jar of amber liquid.

But that night, he came back with a whole jug. They almost shot him on the spot, accused him of withholding grain. He assured them he had saved it up to make this batch. A gift for them. A token of respect for their difficult jobs. The liquid was clearer. He assured them it was purer. They were suspicious. Teodor had to drink first to prove that it wasn’t poison. After that, they relaxed. The first drink made them feel like men, the second reminded them that they were powerful, and the fifth made them stupid.

Maria sat on the edge of the bed. Dania, Myron, Sofia, not yet five, and Katya, barely six months old, clung to her in their sleep. She could feel their bony arms; the swell of their bellies. She played over and over in her head what she would pack. And she prayed. She prayed for a miracle. They had to leave. She would not choose which child would eat and which one would die. They should have got out with Anna and Stefan, before Stalin, before it all happened. But then they still had hope. By the eighth drink, the men were unconscious.

They took the three horses and slipped away under the cover of dark --- Teodor in the lead with Sofia, followed by Dania and Myron, and Maria bringing up the rear with Katya. They traveled only at night, following the bush, avoiding the villages and blocked roads. If the horses’ ears pricked west, Teodor went east before veering back. In daylight, they slept hidden under leaves and branches. They spoke only in whispers. She told the children it was a game to see how well they could hide. When they ran out of their few spoiled potatoes, they ate grass and berries. When one of the horses lay down, unable to go farther, Teodor whispered in its ear as he slit its throat and then they ate it.

When Maria wanted to stop, Teodor made them keep going. His belief never faltered. They would make it. He didn’t allow for any other option. With every step, Maria expected the bay of tracking dogs; with every shadow, someone to betray them; with every bend, soldiers waiting; and with each crack of a snapping twig, a volley of shots. But no one came. She had her miracle. But it wasn’t her conviction that had carried them; it was Theo’s. She would have lain down.

Five days later, they were safe in Halychyna, in Lviv. Teodor sold the horses for a few coins. Enough to pay for a forged exit document and third class rail to the port in Hamburg. They told everyone they met what was happening to their country. People shook their heads and looked away. Some offered them bread.

Teodor found the government people who wanted Ukrainians to come to their country. The Canadian representatives smiled, gave them food, and arranged their passage. One even spoke Ukrainian. The men wrote their names in logbooks and beside Teodor’s name wrote Farmer.

They didn’t want to talk about what was happening in Ukraïna either. They didn’t want to hear about Stalin and that there was no drought; that soldiers were cutting down fields and confiscating seed; that people were eating horses until there were no more horses; eating dogs until there were no more dogs; eating rats, because there were always plenty of rats. They didn’t want to hear that. They wanted to talk about Canada having the healthiest climate in the world and farms for everybody. They wanted to get them on the boat.

Maria was only to bring practical items but had managed to carry her wedding linen. She used it to bundle their other belongings: two pots and a pan, a few utensils, a goose-down quilt, her mother’s hand-woven wool blanket, sewing supplies, tonics, medicine, seeds, two sets of clothes for each child, a hairbrush, six skeins of wool, and the family crucifix and bible, which she had retrieved from under the outhouse floorboards. The only other sentimental item she had smuggled in was a handkerchief filled with the rich, black earth of her homeland.

They were crammed into the lower deck of the ship with two hundred others. They pushed their way to a stack of crates beneath a hatch, which in the days to come would provide their only fresh air. They clung to their heap of possessions. The children --- too weak, too overwhelmed --- never wandered. She made them eat the foul-tasting stew ladled from the massive kettles into their dinner pails. She held the chamber pot for them to throw up in. She wiped their faces and sponged their bodies with her skirt. She held them up to the hatch until her arms went numb. She told them stories and sang lullabies, coaxing them to sleep, to forget.

When the ship arrived at the pier in Halifax, she had to open the handkerchief at customs. The officers laughed at her pile of dirt, but they let her pass. She carried it on the train across the country, two thousand miles. And when the tracks ended, she carried it on the wagon across the prairies and north into the bush. And when the wagon ran out of trail, she carried it on foot. Even when she had to leave behind clothes and a pot, she didn’t put down the handkerchief. When the children were hanging from her waist and wrapped around her neck, she held on to that bundle. And when they finally staggered over the last hill and came to their squat of land, buried in trees and rocks, she fell to her knees, kissed the ground, and mingled her precious soil with this new land.

That was at their old home. Their first home in Canada. It’s where they built their house, broke the land. Where Ivan was conceived on a still, warm April night. Teodor had led her to a patch where he had cleared the land of scrub and roots. This was where he would build their log cabin. He had marked its frame with logs. He took her hand and guided her through the stick drawing. Here’s the kitchen, here’s the children’s rooms, here’s the pantry, here’s the stove, here’s the windows --- see, they look out over the fields. In what was to be their bedroom, he had laid out the wedding linen. Blue-white under the full moon. They made love there, immersed in stars. She had never been able to scrub the grass stains from the precious cloth. That was the last place her family had called home.

"Teodor, the water is ready,” Maria calls softly out the door.

The man who walks through the door is old. His body moves stiffly, his shoulders hunched over. His gait is almost a side-to-side shuffle. The feeble light of the kerosene lamp cloaks him in shadows. He seems hesitant to remove his clothes in front of her.

Maria pulls a chair up close to the steaming water. “Sit,” she urges him, as if he is a small child. Teodor sits heavily on the rickety chair, exhausted by the effort. He leans over and tries to untie the broken string that acts as a shoelace. His fingers fumble with the knot, his hands tremble. Maria kneels down before him. “Let me help.”

He doesn’t protest. He is beyond dignity. He leans back and looks straight ahead, his hands limp in his lap. He looks past her, past the split boards of the wall, beyond the night. He doesn’t blink. The binder twine snaps as Maria tugs at the knot. Gently, she loosens the stiff leather that sticks to his bare feet and ankles. Ever so carefully, she slips the work boots off. He doesn’t flinch. Maria tries not to gag and refrains from covering her nose. His feet are caked in black. Sores ooze where the oversized leather tongues have rubbed mercilessly, and on the back of his heels the blisters have widened into a raw gash. His overgrown toenails are cracked and split.

Maria doesn’t make a sound. She sets each foot, as if it were fine porcelain, on the makeshift towel. She fills a washbasin with the warm water and brings his feet to it. Not until Maria rolls up his ragged cuffs to keep them from getting wet does she gasp. The sound catches in her throat, like a wounded bird, before she swallows it down.

Teodor’s bony ankles are a mottle of bruises --- green, yellow, and brown. Each one branded by the chafing of iron shackles. Layers of rings, some recently scabbed over, others faded to deadened white scars. The constant wearing of steel on flesh.

Three feet away, one of the children coughs and rolls over in their sleep. As if caught in an act of transgression, Maria pulls the pant cuffs down before realizing what she has done. She looks up to Teodor’s face, but he isn’t looking at her. His eyes are fixed on the door. In the lamplight, she sees the creases that furrow his forehead and are etched around his eyes. He is listening to a lone coyote. Its plaintive howl echoes across the prairie, climbing higher and higher in pitch before trailing off. In the sustain, the coyote stops and listens. Calling for someone to answer him, someone to find him.

Maria lowers Teodor’s feet into the basin.


Anna is awake. She hears the coyote calling her. Anna never sleeps at night. Not for the last twenty nights, anyway, not since Stefan came home drunk.

When she first came here, she wasn’t afraid of the night. Anna wasn’t afraid of anything. She wanted to come to this country. She wanted the adventure, she wanted to start her life, build a new world. She was fearless and headstrong. Boys lined up to dance with her. Her father had been offered five proposals for her hand. But none of them had been good enough for his daughter.

And then along came Stefan. He was an officer, rumored to be a friend of the tsar. People feared him. He brought presents. Pears and oranges. Once, a silver mirror and hairbrush. Another time, a sapphire necklace. He brought her father vodka, and her mother silk. He was handsome in his uniform, all the girls said so. Anna didn’t know that Stefan’s job was to chase down traitors and punish them. She didn’t know that the silver mirror had come from a house where he had shot the owner in the head. She didn’t know that the sapphire necklace was torn from the neck of a girl not much older than herself. She only knew that when Stefan danced with her, everybody watched. And so they married.

She should have known when he passed out at his own wedding. She should have known when she wiped the vomit from his shirt. She should have known when he tried to kiss her, reeking of alcohol. By the time he threw her onto the bed and held her down, she did know. But by then it was too late.

Another war came, and this time Stefan was the traitor. He survived an assassination attempt, escaping with a bullet lodged in his thigh. He bought his way out of the country with the sapphire necklace. He sold all the spoils of his years in the service, except for the silver mirror and hairbrush. Anna refused to let them go. They were hers, the only things of beauty she still believed were given in love. Stefan loved her long chestnut hair that spiraled in curls to the small of her back. When they were courting, he would run his fingers through her tresses, brush the back of his hand against her cheek and neck, and breathe in its sweet lavender scent. The day after their wedding night, Stefan brushed her hair as he begged forgiveness. Tears streaming down his cheeks, he promised, promised as the brush twisted and pulled at her locks.

Stefan promised her that everything would be different in Canada. They would be treated with the respect and honor they deserved. They would be aristocracy. They would be rich. People would bow to them in the street.

Anna remembers her first night on the prairies. Stefan built a huge fire. He kept the pistol and rifle at his side. He said he was going to keep watch; she knew he was afraid. But Anna loved the darkness and the vastness. It made her feel like she belonged. Something woke her in the middle of the night. She looked to Stefan, who had fallen asleep wrapped tight in a blanket. Even his head was covered. Anna turned to the sound. Short, panting snorts. Feet padding back and forth. Then she saw the eyes, reflected yellow in the firelight.

A young coyote circled the edge of their fire. Head down, nose rising, sucking back their scent. Anna had never seen anything so beautiful, so wild. Slowly, she stood up. The animal retreated a few feet. Anna took another step away from the fire into the darkness. She spoke quietly in a singsong voice. She crouched down. The thin female, its tail between its legs, slouched warily toward her. Anna held out her hand. The animal sniffed the air.

Fingers outstretched, Anna sat still and quiet, her breathing even. She bowed her head and looked sideways into the animal’s eyes. The coyote nudged its nose forward, inches from her hand. Anna could feel its hot breath condensing into moisture in the cool night air. She inched her fingers closer. The animal’s lip curled, revealing an incisor. Anna stopped and lowered her head more. The coyote leaned forward and touched its cold nose to her warm fingers.

Off in the darkness, another coyote wailed. Startling the night, long and urgent. The female turned to its cry. A shot thundered and the female’s side ripped open. Another explosion, and the left side of its head erupted in blood and bone, spraying Anna’s face. She stumbled to her feet and saw Stefan running toward her screaming, but Anna couldn’t hear him. She could only hear the gun shot ricocheting in her head. She could only see the coyote’s body convulsing at her feet.

That was the first night.

There were other nights. Night was when Anna braided Lesya’s hair. Her baby girl had the same color hair as she did. The same blue eyes. Lesya was ten now. When Anna looked into Lesya’s eyes, she could almost see herself. But when she looked down at the child’s thin body, to the deformed foot, she knew the child was nothing like her.

It was night when Lesya was born. Anna had been in labor since the morning, with the midwife chattering unrelentingly through it all. Soothing her, encouraging her, admonishing her to be quiet. Stefan had left the cabin when Anna first started to scream. He didn’t return despite her pleas, even though she knew he was just on the other side of the door. When the baby slipped out, the mid- wife fell silent. She cut the umbilical cord, swaddled the newborn, and left her lying at the foot of the bed. The baby didn’t make a sound. The midwife took Anna’s hand, and Anna was sure that she was going to tell her that the baby was stillborn. But instead she cautiously said, Sometimes babies aren’t meant for this world. Sometimes it’s better to let them return to God. She said that she could help. The newborn began to wail, its tiny lungs exploding with air, and Anna knew it wanted to live.

As soon as Anna wrapped her arms around the baby, its perfect face relaxed --- a beautiful baby girl. Stefan was ushered back in, looking contrite. Their baby. She knew that she could love her. Love him. They could start again.

Her heart nearly broke when the child wrapped her tiny hand around Anna’s finger. She unwrapped the sheet that was wound too tight around the child, freeing her fragile chest, the heart pounding visibly through the almost translucent skin. She freed the legs from the cloth binding and saw the left foot grotesquely twisted sideways, almost back onto itself. It looked blue, dead. Anna pushed the child away. The infant rolled over and lay splayed in the middle of the bed. Her deformed foot jutted out, pointing at Anna, accusingly.

Hysterical, Anna tried to get up from the bed; blood poured between her legs. Stefan and the midwife pushed her back down. She tried to beat them away. She bit their arms, clawed at their clothes. They tied her wrists and legs to the bed, forced her to drink Stefan’s bitter moonshine. Its heat seared her throat, as she choked on the salt of her own tears. She remembers Stefan stroking her forehead, his breath hot on her cheek, promising her everything would be all right.

When she woke, the baby was beside her, watching her. Not whimpering. Not crying to be fed. Just watching. She never gave her breast to that child. She milked herself like a cow and fed the baby like an orphaned calf. As Lesya got older, she followed her mother everywhere. Trailing a few feet behind. Watching, always watching her. Mimicking her mother’s movements. Sometimes Anna wondered if Lesya was mute too. But the child could talk. She just knew when to keep quiet.

One day, when Lesya was two, Anna was making pyrohy, and as she rolled the dough and cut out the circle shapes, she absently sang the songs she remembered her own mother singing back home. Songs of soldiers going off to war, peasants wooing young girls, hymns for good harvests, songs of mothers teaching their girls to be good wives. When Lesya started to sing, she followed her mother’s every note. That night, Anna let the child sit on her lap. She ran the silver brush through the girl’s tangled hair and braided it. Stefan came home in high spirits and danced for them. They laughed. That was when the night was good.

Then she had Petro. Stefan was away on one of his trips to town again. Business. A day here and a day there. Returning home with expensive gifts they couldn’t afford. Smelling of booze and faint, sweet soap. Anna was in the garden when her water broke. She took a few steps, and a contraction forced her to her knees. She tried to stand, but was driven down again. Lesya was only three. She stood watching her mother crawling on all fours, writhing and wailing in pain. Petro was born right there in the August dust. It was Lesya who cleared the dirt from her newborn brother’s mouth as Anna tried to crawl away, tethered to the umbilical cord.

It had been seven years since that day, and Anna had managed to protect herself. There were ways: vinegar douches; parsley tea; scalding baths; once, she rode a horse. And then she learned how to protect herself from him. The first time she pulled the knife on Stefan, it wasn’t planned. She was chopping beets when he grabbed her from behind. She didn’t think, she spun around, knife still in hand, and the blade sliced across his belly. His grimy white shirt split open and a fine red stain flowered outward. It was only a scratch, but Anna didn’t drop the knife. She didn’t feel remorse. Her hand didn’t shake. From then on, Anna kept the knife under her pillow. Stefan stopped reaching for her. Now he spent weeks away from home. He didn’t bother to bring back presents anymore or wash the perfume and women’s scent from his body. But he left her alone.

Until that night. Twenty nights ago. That night, Anna was dreaming she was a young girl again. She was running toward something golden; something she couldn’t see, but knew was there; when she plunged into darkness. Fighting for air, she opened her eyes to find Stefan on top of her. His hand pressed against her mouth, his forearm crushing her chest. His other hand tore back the covers, clawed at her legs, pried apart her knees. Anna groped under the pillow for the knife, knowing it was already gone.

That night, the moon was hidden behind clouds. Anna couldn’t see the children, though they lay only a few feet away. Once, when the moon dared to peek out, she thought she saw Lesya’s eyes watching her; an instant later they were gone. When he was done, Stefan tried to stroke Anna’s hair from her forehead. He whispered how sorry he was, how much he loved her, how much he missed her . . . Anna spat in his face. She didn’t cry when he walked out the door. She got up, found the knife, and cut off her long, tangled hair. That was twenty nights ago.

Tonight, as she sits in the dark, she can feel it growing in her belly. She listens to the coyote calling calling calling.

"I’m here,” she whispers back. “I’m here.”


Teodor sleeps for three days and three nights, unaware that on the first day little Katya gathers wildflowers for him and sets them in a canning jar beside the bed. Or that on the second night, Ivan crawls in bed with him and falls asleep nestled against his belly until Maria carries him back to his own bed. He doesn’t see Sofia place a spider on his hand and watch it crawl up his arm across his chest until it disappears into the bedding.

He doesn’t hear Dania, who is pressing his pants with a hot iron, burn her hand. He doesn’t know that Myron stops at the bed and stares down at him each morning on his way to chores before turning his back on him. Or that his niece, Lesya, and nephew, Petro, touch his toes at Ivan’s goading. Or that Maria’s been sleeping in a chair the last two nights because she doesn’t want to risk waking him.

The family becomes ghosts. They use sign language, hush one another, and tiptoe in socked feet. They are ever vigilant to catch a log before it crashes to the floor; carry the dishes one at a time so they don’t clatter; wave away chattering magpies; stifle laughs and coughs; shoo the cats, moaning in heat, from the doorway. They take their food outside to eat. The smaller children --- Ivan, Katya, Lesya, and Petro --- head across the field, down the hill to the slough to discuss the stranger in the bed. Myron goes to the barn and oils all the machinery, cleans the tack and harnesses, and sharpens the plow. Sofia goes to school earlier and stays later, telling everyone she has a new English friend named Ruth. Dania scrubs and scrubs her father’s filthy pants and mends the shirt he wore home.

Maria rubs balm on Teodor’s feet, sponges him, burns sage around his head, covers him with a sheet through the warmth of the day, and pulls the quilt over him in the chill of night. She keeps the fire stoked, burning dead twigs that Ivan and Petro drag home in burlap bags. She takes count of all their stores, itemizes their belongings, sorts them for her trip to town. Once, she drops a spoon. Her fingers claw air, chasing, grabbing for its spinning handle --- it lands with a thud. She and Dania stand still, not daring to breathe.

But Teodor doesn’t twitch. He can’t hear them. He is dreaming deep inside a dark abyss where even he does not exist.


When Teodor wakes, the shed is empty . A low fire burns in the stove. He smells soup simmering. Clean clothes are laid out on the chair beside him. Two neatly rolled cigarettes sit atop perfectly folded pants. Tentatively, he sits up. His insides drop, his head seems to float away; for a moment his vision blackens and then the room returns. A table, four mismatched chairs, two benches, an oil lamp, a woodstove, two beds, a curtain of feed bags acting as a divider, a crate with a washbasin, a shaving mirror, two shelves with dry goods, preserves, and dishes, and a framed picture of the Virgin Mary. Four walls confining a space not much larger than his prison cell.

He swings his legs over the edge of the bed, looks down at the feet dangling beneath him. They are scrubbed clean, pale white. The sores are drying up. He wraps the blanket around him. He touches his toes to the cool dirt floor and stands unsteadily. Using the wall for support, he sets one foot ahead of the other. Heel to toe, finding his balance, he opens the door of the shack.

Brilliant light pours in, illuminating sparkling specks of dust drifting in the air. Teodor smells cut grass, sweet alyssum, warm hay, and rotting wood. The sun washes over him. He closes his eyes and raises his face. Pulsing red orbs push through his eyelids. When he opens them again, sun halos are etched into his retinas. They dance between him and the unending fields speckled with tender green shoots. When he looks up into the blueness of sky, the sun halos float among the clouds. And when he looks down, they touch his bare feet before fading away.

The yellow cat lolling on the stoop stretches on its side and decadently tips its head back to chew on a long blade of sweet grass dangling over its ear. A few feet away flies buzz over the desiccated remains of a mouse.

Teodor puts on the man’s clothes. He opens the crisply starched cloth arms and slips his own inside. The shirt smells of lye and wind. He fumbles with the small buttons, fastening them one by one. He buttons the cuffs, which are slightly frayed. He pulls on the pants. The clothes, three sizes too large, hang loose on his thin body. He tightens the belt five extra notches. He looks at the arms, chest, stomach, and legs now clothed. He holds his arms slightly away from his body. His feet a few inches apart. He doesn’t want to wrinkle this man.

He goes to the small mirror but doesn’t approach directly. He steps sideways, peeking in. The man staring back at him has straggly, salt-and-pepper hair that hangs past his shoulders, a grizzled beard, cracked lips, and sunken gray eyes. He fills the basin with warm water and lathers up the soap. He runs his fingers along the razor blade, hanging from a nail beside the mirror. It is still sharp, untouched. He draws the blade across his neck. Globs of soap and whiskers fall.

It is another man who sits at the table to a white bowl full of beet-red borshch. He sits straight. His hair is short. It has been waxed and carefully combed to the contours of his head. His face is smooth. His sleeves are rolled up to the elbows. He holds a spoon in his right hand. The left hand rests against the side of the bowl. He fills the spoon and lifts it to his mouth, holds it safely away so as not to stain his shirt. He blows. Brings his lips to its edge. Sips in the steaming broth. He holds it in his mouth, lets it spill against his cheeks. Cups it on his tongue. Vinegar. Beets. Cabbage. Potato. Dill. Pepper. It is the best food he has ever tasted. Teodor swallows and tears leak from his eyes.

It is almost supper when Maria returns home. The family enters the house in the order that has become customary over the last three days. Maria gives the children a harsh signal to be quiet and they line up, smallest to biggest, to file into the shack, then move stealthily to their bed on the other side of the room. But this time, when she slowly pushes open the door, she sees a flickering oil lamp and smoke drifting from a cigarette burning low in a man’s hand. She sees a bare foot and cuffed pant and Teodor sitting at the table. He looks up and she sees the boy she married. He smiles. And she smiles back.

Ivan, who is first in line, pushes past his mother’s skirt and sees the man who used to carry him on his shoulders and toss him in the air and never dropped him.

The three girls see him next. Dania sees how nice the clothes look on her father. How crisp the collar is and how straight the crease in his pants.

Sofia sees a man so handsome he could be a movie star: Clark Gable, a banker, a tycoon --- a hero.

Katya sees her daddy’s face and remembers how she used to run her hands over his whiskers and he would rub his scratchy cheek against the nape of her neck and she would laugh so hard she thought she would throw up.

Myron sees that his father has shrunk. His shoulders are stooped, his muscles withered. He can’t imagine him working in the fields or swinging the pickax or moving boulders twice as heavy as himself. He can’t imagine this man knocking him to the ground for forgetting to water the horse because if anything happened to the horse then they would all die. Myron knows he can take this man with hardly any effort.

Teodor remains seated. They face one another, waiting. Him inside the room, them frozen in the doorway. It is Ivan who takes the first step forward. This small five-year-old boy, with his tousle of sun-bleached hair, missing tooth, chewed fingernails, walks up to his father and stands bravely before him. He takes the man’s face in his hands and brings it close to his own. He stands on tiptoe and squints as he peers into the man’s eyes. He looks past the bloodshot white, past the blue and gray flecks, and looks directly into the black center.

&ldquot;It’s him,” he decrees and throws his arms around his father’s neck as he climbs onto his lap and babbles about Petro, and the frog they found, and the cat that died, and the ice storm last year, and going to town, and Mama buying toffee, and still having some in his pocket, and his pants being too short, and the nail he stepped on, and the bird that got in the house, and can they get another dog . . . until Maria tells him hush.

Teodor holds out his hand to Katya, whom Dania gently pushes forward. Katya, now six --- all skin and bones, knock-kneed with too-big shoes and hair that sticks out everywhere, who bruises at the slightest touch --- trips over her feet and catches herself against Teodor’s leg. She looks up at his face, disappointed that she can’t see any whiskers. She touches his cheek for confirmation. Smooth. As she contemplates this, she frowns and chews her lower lip. Teodor bites at her hand and she pulls it back, shocked, before bursting into laughter.

He looks to Sofia next, her hair curled in tight ringlets held with a red ribbon. She wears a Sunday blouse the seams of which she has altered to give a better fit. Her skirt is hemmed just below the knee. She looks older than her eleven years. “You’ve become a young lady,” he says, which makes Sofia very happy.

Dania, his eldest, lost in an oversized bland dress, her hair braided and coiled, loaded down with packages, stands beside her mother, hoping to be noticed. “Aren’t you going to say hello?” he asks. She sets down her bundle and approaches with her head down. She covers her chapped, lye-burned hands. “You’re all grown up.” He takes her hand even though she tries to pull it away. She breathes in his clean soap smell and notices how her arms now reach completely around him.

Maria places a bundle on the table in front of Teodor. “This is for you.” She hopes that she hasn’t changed that much. That she is still the woman he remembers. No more beautiful, no more common. The woman he wanted to come home to. The children huddle around for the big surprise.

"Open it,” they urge. And Ivan and Katya, who can’t bear the suspense, tug on the strings, while Teodor looks at his wife. She is everything that he remembers: the small childhood scar under her left eyebrow, the lines that crinkle when she smiles, her lips --- the top one twitches when she’s angry, the bottom one pouts if she’s sad --- her nose that sneezes whenever she smells dill weed, and her eyes. Brown eyes that he would give his life never to see cry again. Teodor unfolds the paper, revealing a brand-new pair of black leather boots with brown shoelaces.

"How?” He breathes, not daring to touch them.

"Mama sold her fancy sheets,” blurts Ivan. Dania cuffs the back of his head.

Teodor stands and his children see that he is still tall. He kisses his wife. Hesitant. Their lips brush. An act of thanks. She wants to hold him and not let go, but instead she looks away. She knows the children are watching with eyes wide, mouths slightly open, imagining what such a kiss must feel like.

"I have to get supper ready.” She brusquely reaches for her apron. “Go wash up.” She claps her hands together for emphasis. “Get some wood,” she directs Myron, who is still standing in the doorway. “Tonight we’re having meat.”

Myron splits the few precious blocks of wood they’ve been saving. He takes one, halves it, quarters it, and tosses it onto the pile. He has enough chopped for several days, but still he lifts the ax high over his head and slams it into the eye of the wood. One clean crack and it cleaves open.

"You have a good swing.”

Myron looks to Teodor and sets another log on the chopping block. He lifts the ax again, stretches to show his father how tall and strong he has become. How he spreads his feet and allows the energy of his muscles to unleash through the handle into the blade like his father taught him and that the hardwood log is the size a man would split.

Teodor goes into the barn. It is cool and musty. The mud chink has dried and separated from the slats. The wind whistles through. It smells of urine, manure, and sweet decaying hay. He lays his hand on the cow’s forelock and strokes the bridge of its nose.

"Hello,” he whispers. The cow greets his hand with a long, sandpapery lick. Teodor checks the tack. The bits shine, the leather reins and harnesses are supple, the tools have been oiled and scoured clean. He looks over the plow, runs his thumb along the freshly sharpened blade. The cow absently chews its cud, keeping an eye on Teodor. The stalls have been mucked out. There is fresh water in the buckets. The hay is dry. Rotten boards have been replaced and the walls shored up. There is nothing for him to do here.

Myron listens as his father inspects the barn, expecting his name to be called. He’ll put down his ax and join him, maybe share a cigarette, talk about the weather and when the best time to seed might be. If they sit long enough and silent enough, maybe they’ll talk about other things. About that night he helped fill the wagon. When he hid in the high stalks because it’s what his father told him to do. His father, facedown, a boot on the back of his head, his arms behind his back. They called him a thieving, filthy bohunk. Myron will nod and keep his eyes on the dirt floor as he listens. Listens to what can’t be said anywhere else except between men.

But Teodor doesn’t call his name. He shuts the barn door behind him and heads to the house. His boots squeak with their new stiffness. He nods to Myron as he passes.


Excerpted from UNDER THIS UNBROKEN SKY © Copyright 2011 by Shandi Mitchell. Reprinted with permission by Harper Perennial. All rights reserved.

Under This Unbroken Sky
by by Shandi Mitchell

  • Genres: Fiction
  • hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Harper
  • ISBN-10: 0061774022
  • ISBN-13: 9780061774027