( Ukraine, 1980s )
Photo by Shrike
I always loved my summer holidays in a small coal-mining town in Ukraine. I stayed there with my Ukrainian relatives living in a flat on the top floor of a three-story building with a big fenced yard. There were always lots of kids playing in the yard.
Unfortunately (or, may be, fortunately) there was no girls of my age there – only boys, but we managed to get on quite well, playing war games and chasing each other.
They called me Private Mousen, as I always was as quiet as a mouse. There was no other ‘privates’ in our battalion – only half a dozen of generals and a few spies.
I did not need to wait long for my first assignment. One morning the spies disappeared in our kitchen. Soon they came back and whispered something to the generals.
“Hey, Private Mousen. We’ve got a special assignment for you. Come here!” – I came closer to the generals. One of them rushed outside and got some yucky-grey mud from the nearest puddle.
“You need some camouflage,” – he explained, spreading a thick layer of mud all over my face. I wrinkled my nose.
“That’s good. Now, here is your gun,” – he gave me a big stick. “Your post is behind the door. You should wait there quietly until someone comes through the door. Once you hear someone coming, you need to jump out and shout ‘Hande Hoch’ as loud as you can. We’ll wait there,” – he pointed at the distant corner not far from the front door.
I hid behind the door, listening attentively to any sound. Soon I heard my grandma coming. I jumped out and shouted at the top of my lungs: “Hande Hoch”.
Poor grandma shrieked in horror, jumped on the spot and dropped a huge pot of beetroot soup on the floor. A big red spot started spreading all over the carpet.
I burst into tears, spreading dirt all over my face and clothes. Generals and spies burst into laughter and rushed outside.
Alerted by all the noise, my aunty jumped out of the kitchen with a broom in her hands and started chasing boys around the yard to the surprised looks of all the neighbors.
“Just wait for your dads to come home and belt your cheeky bottoms, you rascals” – she shouted, angrily waving the broom at the boys. “And you, little devil in skirt, you are going straight to the bathroom. I wonder sometimes about the kind of upbringing your mother is giving you!!!”
I tried to mumble something in defence of my poor mother. She was surely doing all the right things. Every day after school I had various activities: piano lessons on Mondays, singing on Tuesdays, ball room dancing on Wednesdays, athletics on Thursdays, and gymnastics on Fridays.
By the time I was getting home to finish my homework, I hardly had any energy left. And if that was not enough, every Saturday and Sunday my mum used to take me to various museums and theaters. I still remember endless hours I spent in philharmonic halls, listening to the classical music. Or queuing for hours to get in the Hermitage and then walking through endless Hermitage halls with all the paintings and artefacts. No time was left for friends and fun.
Being a teacher, my mother was always at the cutting edge of all the learning theories, testing all of them on me. When she was pregnant with me she was listening to Bach to ensure that I’ll turn into a tall beauty – no luck. I always was the shortest in the family. I wish she danced Lambada instead – then I would surely have turned into a 90x60x90 model or a movie star 😉
Though Mozart she played after my birth to make sure that I’ll always be cheerful probably did the trick – still laughing.
She surely could not do any more ‘right things’ with me – not unless there were 48 hours in a day!
My auntie however was not convinced. She quickly washed me, dressed me nicely, brushed my hair and left me outside on a bench under a tree. “Be a good girl,” – she said, giving me a book and disappearing in the kitchen.
Photo by Artbanka
A magic place: there wends his wayThe woodsprite, there’s a mermaid sittingIn branches, there on trails past knowingAre tracks of beast you never met;On chicken feet a hut is setWith neither door nor window showing.There wood and dale with wonders teem;At dawn of day the breakers streamUpon the bare and barren lea,And thirty handsome armored heroes…
‘Thirty handsome armored heroes’ did not keep me waiting for too long.
“Private Mousen! What are you doing here?” – I heard a whisper from the nearby bush. “Come here. We have something special for you.”
I left my book on the bench and peeked behind the bush.
“Look at these wonderful caterpillars. It was a hard job to collect so many caterpillars for you!!!” – they attempted to throw a few caterpillars on me.
They surely knew that I was scared of all these yucky creepy creatures. I sprang to my feet and rushed away, chased by all the generals and spies.
After three circles around the yard, driven by fear I managed to climb right to the top of the tree. I looked down. Everything started spinning around. I closed my eyes and clung firmer to the tree trunk.
“Where is the Russian Princess?” – I heard my uncle asking, pointing at the book on the empty bench. Moving a few steps away from my uncle, boys silently pointed to the top of the tree. Quietly swearing and waving his fist at the boys, my uncle climbed up the tree to get me down.
Photo by Lena Urazaeva
Next day my uncle put on his new white pants and took us by bus to the pond. The pond was quite deep even a few meters from the shore, and I could not swim at all. Boys wanted to get to the little island in the middle of the pond.
“Come on, Private Mousen. You can do that. Just kick your legs and move your arms like this and that,” – unfortunately, I definitely was not an innate mermaid.
“OK,” – said my cousin. “I can help you. Just hold on to my waist and kick your legs as fast as you can, and I’ll move my arms. We will be able to get there together at no time at all.”
I followed his advice.
“Three, two, one, go!!!” – I started kicking vigorously, while holding to his waist, and we both went right to the bottom of the pond.
My uncle jumped into the water and pulled both of us out. Yucky brown water was pouring down his new white pants. He was silent the whole way home.
Photo by OOH
“Let’s count cars,” – suggested my cousin to break the boring silence. “I’ll be counting Ladas, and you will be counting Volgas. Who will get the most is the winner.”
“One, two, three…Start” We started counting cars.
“What are you counting?!” – exclaimed my cousin indignantly. “That’s not even a car, but just a tin can!!!”
‘A tin can’ was a nickname of another Soviet car “Zaporozhez”. I could only blink my eyes, as all the cars looked pretty similar to me. They all had four wheels after all.
“Ok,” – my cousin scratched his head. “I have an idea. I will count Ladas and you will count … red cars.”
Photo by Jaroslav Toporkov
The following day we had a surprise – someone has left a big 24-kg kettle-bell in the yard. All the boys crowded around it. Then they got an idea. One of them rushed to the little ant-hill in the corner of the yard and got a jar of ants.
“OK, guys. We will take turns in lifting this kettle-bell off the ground – whoever fails must eat an ant from the jar. Private Mousen, you are first.”
I came to the kettle-bell and grabbed it with both hands. I pulled it up as hard as I could, but it would not move at all. I tried again and again – it did not help.
“Well, here is your ant,” – my cousin put an ant on my hand. “You need to eat it now, or we are not playing with you anymore.”
I closed my eyes and put this ant into my mouth.
“Close your mouth and chew,” – ordered my cousin.
“What is in your mouth?” – my uncle appeared in the yard.
I silently pointed at a jar full of ants.
“Yuck, spit it out! Who gave you that?”
“That was just a game, uncle.”
“A game? OK, lads. Your turn to lift this kettle-bell. Come on, guys.”
None of the boys could lift it either.
“Watch out, lads. Or you will be eating ants next time,” – he warned the boys, picking up the kettle-bell and carrying it away.
Photo by Olga Kochedykova
We started getting bored.
“OK, let’s play ‘squirrels on the tree’,” – suggested my cousin. “I’ll be chasing and tagging you. You need to jump on something to keep your feet off the ground to avoid being tagged.”
We started playing. I was trying really hard to run to the nearest bench, but my cousin was getting nearer and nearer.
“I’ll help you,’ – shouted one of the oldest boys picking me off the ground. He ran with me to the bench. We almost reached it, when he tripped over and fell. I flew right onto the ground and smashed both knees. I burst into tears with blood dripping from my knees.
“Stop crying,” I heard his whisper. “It does not hurt much, as the blood takes all the pain away.Trust me, it is much worse, when it is not bleeding, as all the pain stays in your body then. Also, the air slowed down your fall, so you did not hurt yourself as much as I did, as I was closer to the ground and the air could not slow my fall that much,” he said with a moan.
He did not have a single scratch, but his words were so convincing, that I stopped crying at once and started comforting him instead.
Photo by @Geroin
A few days later we heard that thieves has stolen some marinated gherkins and tomatoes from the sheds at the far end of the yard.
“I have an idea,” – my cousin said. “We should catch them.”
We spent the whole day digging holes in front of the sheds. Then we got some rope, made loops and hid them in the holes. We covered the holes with leaves and grass.
“Well done, guys. Private Mousen, you’ve got a very important assignment. You will be the first to trial our traps!”
I ran to the sheds, fell in a trap, rushed out, got my foot caught in a loop and crashed onto the concrete path in front of the sheds. Now I had not only bleeding knees, but a bleeding elbow as well.
“Private Mousen. Couldn’t you just pretend!” – hissed my cousin. “My mum has already used all the iodine on disinfecting your battle wounds!”
“But that would not be a real trial, would it…?”
Unfortunately, we did not catch any thieves while pickled gherkins kept disappearing from the sheds.
“Well,” – said my cousin, scratching his head. “Who will stay with me on night watch?”
I was the only volunteer. We sneaked a big jar of juice from the kitchen and a pack of playing cards. We played cards until midnight. We peeked out of the window. The night was clear with bright stars scattered all over the sky.
“I’m feeling tired,” – said my cousin – “I need a little nap. Let’s take turns. I’ll be first. Keep an eye on the clock and wake me up in an hour. You can have an hour nap then.”
He hid under the blanket and fell asleep. I did not know what to do. I tried to read a book, but my eyes kept closing and I kept drifting off to sleep. I went to the bathroom and dipped my face in cold water. It helped to wake me up a little bit. I pinched myself. I tried to skip and jump, and frolic around the room, keeping an eye on the clock. At last an hour was over. I woke my cousin up and climbed under the blanket.
When I opened my eyes, the sun was shining. My cousin was fast asleep. I did not speak with him for the rest of the day.
Photo by Elena Krivenkova
The summer was over. It was time for me to go home. But looking out of the train’s window in the darkness of the night I saw the smudgy faces of the generals and spies.
Photo by Serge
* * *
True, though I still have never progressed to either a ‘general’ or a ‘spy’.
And who cares? 😉