The Sky Unwashedby Irene Zabytko
Early on an April Saturday in 1986 in a farm village in Ukraine, widow Marusia Petrenko and her family awake to a day of traditional wedding preparations. Marusia bakes her famous wedding bread-a korovai-in the communal village oven to take to her neighbor's granddaughter's reception. Late that night, after all the dancing and drinking, Marusia's son Yurko leaves
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Early on an April Saturday in 1986 in a farm village in Ukraine, widow Marusia Petrenko and her family awake to a day of traditional wedding preparations. Marusia bakes her famous wedding bread-a korovai-in the communal village oven to take to her neighbor's granddaughter's reception. Late that night, after all the dancing and drinking, Marusia's son Yurko leaves for his shift at the nuclear power plant at Chernobyl.
In the morning, the air has a strange metallic taste. The cat is oddly listless. The priest doesn't show up for services. Yurko doesn't come home from work. Nobody know what's happened (and they won't for many days), but things have changed for the Petrenkos-forever.
Inspired by true events, this unusual, unexpected novel tells how-and why-Marusia defies the Soviet government's permanent evacuation of her deeply contaminated village and returns to live out her days in the only home she's ever known. Alone in the deserted town, she struggles up into the church bell tower to ring the bells twice every day just in case someone else has returned. And they have, one by one/ In the end, five intrepid old women-the village babysi-band together for survival and to confront the Soviet officials responsible for their fate. And, in the midst of desolation, a tenacious hold on life chimes forth.
Poignant and truthful and triumphant, this timeless story is about ordinary people who do more than simply "survive."
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Read an Excerpt
In the village of Starylis, during the less politically oppressive days of the Gorbachev era in the Soviet Union, the citizens working on the kolhosp, the collective farm, felt themselves to be more prosperous than their counterparts in the cities of Ukraine. The cows' milk was sweet and creamy because the animals were allowed to roam the fertile grasslands. From a distance, fleshy black cows dotted the crisp hay fields where they ate the tender and abundant lemongrass and clover. Near the fields, wild red-orange poppies grew defiantly between the giant stalks of sunflowers.
Old men chewed tobacco and sunflower seeds during harvest time so as not to set fire to the dry igloo-shaped bundles of hay with their homemade cigarettes, while the strong, overworked women tended the cows and ran the tractors alongside their men. When they weren't too busy with the farmwork, the women still made traditional jam from Queen Anne's lace, a golden paste they spread on generous slices of soft brown breads often baked in the huge outdoor clay ovens their ancestors had fired for over a hundred years.
The old men and women were clearly in charge of the kolhosp. Because of the stubbornness they inherited from their serf forbears, they insisted on harboring pieces of the land for their own small gardens. The government reluctantly allowed each of them one-third of an acre of property. So the villagers' thatched-roofed houses stood on these modest patches of cleared forest land, surrounded by neat gardens of potatoes, beets, tomatoes and pretty ornamental flowers that the older women grew to adorn the altar in the church. A few families even managed to build tiny sheds on the corners of their crowded lots, which they used to smoke pork, or to hide a still, or to shelter a cow. In the fall, the old women gathered huge, succulent white mushrooms and strung and dried the feathery caps into amber curls that would sell to the highest or loudest bidder on Saturday mornings at the local bazaars.
But the old farmers' children weren't so stubborn. They preferred to seek the better wages at the nuclear power plant in nearby Chornobyl. There, the gray cement modern buildings were a monument to the Soviet promise of progress. Everyone knew that if you could last five years doing whatever work they gave you, you were eligible to apply for a short family vacation at the plant's residence in the resort town of Sochi on the Black Sea. Ten years on the job got you a booklet of coupons that permitted you to shop at the kashtan, the stores that were only for tourists with hard currency or for Communist Party officials. At the kashtan, you could buy transistor radios and mock oriental rugs. Sometimes, sexy ivory nylon blouses from East Germany or ice-pink lipsticks from Poland would come in unexpectedly and be bought up in minutes, before the next surprise product appeared without warning on the shelves.
Until their names came up on the interminable waiting lists for the ever-crowded, dour blocks of Stalinesque apartments closest to the Chornobyl plant, this new generation lived in Starylis with their parents and grandparents. Together, the generations mingled, fought and survived in the cramped village cottages because, for the meantime, they had no place else to go. They rebuilt the roofs, especially the thatched ones which always needed repair after a hard winter, or pooled their monthly wages to buy a new cow or a new kind of television without the horizontal lines that defaced the screen whenever anyone was trying to watch a news program or a rock concert direct from Moscow. The more affluent families of Starylis could even afford a car, a Volga or Lada usually, black and sturdy, complete with a diesel engine that could blow the dust on the country roads even further than a tractor could.
What the younger villagers of Starylis wanted most was to bring some material comfort into their hard, barren lives. Years of empty Communist promises had led to apathy and disillusionment and made them hunger for the tangible possessions they thought would soothe their frustrated spirits.
For their part, the older generation-the ones who had survived Stalin, famine and war, especially the babysi, the old women in babushkas who kept the old ways alive with their icons and litanies despite the official ban on religion-knew that the hard times never end.
In 1986, Paraskevia Volodymyrivna told the other babysi of Starylis that the storks had not returned to nest on her thatched roof. This had happened only twice before during her lifetime-in 1933 at the height of Stalin's artificial famine and in 1944 when the Germans invaded the village. A bad sign, Paraskevia told anyone passing her house who would listen. Maybe they'll come yet, many said to appease the old woman. But Paraskevia shook her head. The storks had always returned just when the long thick icicles under the eaves melted and dripped like a death knoll to announce the end of winter. By the time the first crocuses opened their sassy yellow petals, and the buds on the naked trees were about to green and swell, the storks should already have been settled into their wide nests.
A bad sign, Paraskevia repeated to herself. She made the sign of the cross and expected something to happen.
Back in a Few Days . . .
Marusia Petrenko's hands were coarse and red, thickened over the years by hard work, bad weather and indifference, and yet the pads on the tips of her fingers were as soft as a baby's bald crown. Her hands were numb to most sensations and especially to the hot water she poured over the socks of her only son Yurko-a man in his forties, and she in her seventies. The washing of his socks and underwear was a habit Marusia chose to keep even though Yurko had a wife.
She used the yellow lye soap from the Starylis co-op store that was used in all the homes in the village. It was locally made by the old men, and they could never agree on how much lanolin to put in, nor had they the creative bent to dash in some essence of violets to make a more luxurious and feminine soap for the ladies-the men simply didn't care about such things. Marusia rubbed the thick cake hard against the material and sloshed the socks in the little copper sink. The underwear and socks, heavy with water, were wrung through her long fingers, the water scalding her knuckles. She furiously fought the stains and throttled the cheap, thinning fabrics with the blows of her powerful hands-turning, splashing, until the front of her dress became soaked with a vest of wetness over her ample breasts.
Next she would wash her grandchildren's things-little Katia's socks with the pink lace on the cuffs that came from Czechoslovakia, and Tarasyk's cloth diapers. He was still in diapers at three, but Marusia didn't mind. He was a happy child who hummed to himself though he hardly ever spoke because, Marusia thought, his parents argued constantly and muted the stuttering sounds of his sweet baby voice.
On the nights when she wasn't too angry at her daughter-in-law, she would also wash Zosia's laundry, although Zosia seemed to expect it rather than be grateful. Lately, Zosia appeared more impudent than usual, stomping around in her new red and yellow vinyl-strapped high heels. Unlike many of the Slavic girls in the village, Zosia's calves and thighs were straight and narrow and not thick and solid like tree stumps. "Those must be new shoes, they look so modern," Marusia said to her the first time Zosia wriggled her feet into them. Zosia mumbled offhandedly that her mother had sent the shoes to her as a gift all the way from Siberia where she lived. Marusia clamped shut her mouth, even though she assumed that the shoes were a gift from one of the men friends Zosia whored around with.
Marusia never openly accused Zosia of being unfaithful to Yurko; there was no point in provoking Zosia's bad temper. Above all, the children had to be protected from their parents' silly problems. It'll work itself out, she hoped, pursing her lips as she threw the heavy, wet clothes around in the sink. "Bozhe, what a hom," she said to herself. "For a pair of shoes that one would spread her legs for the devil."
On this particular evening, Marusia listened to the television on in the next room as she washed. An announcer was narrating a travelogue on Tbilisi in the Russian language. Marusia had never been to any large Soviet city. Anything she learned about the Soviet Union or the world came from watching the television. She avoided the talk programs (too political for her tastes), but she loved to watch the travelogues. Once she neglected making dinner because she was enraptured by a documentary on the alligators in America, in a place called Floridoo. "Teeth the size of a horseradish root," she'd tell anyone who would listen. "And a tail that could knock you off your feet in a second," she'd say proudly, as if the alligators belonged to her.
Marusia went into the living room to watch the end of the program on Tbilisi. She wanted to ask Yurko a question about Georgia, where people lived to be over a hundred years old God bless them, and to ask him was it true that the dark Georgian men, who drank so much wine, were good to their wives and to old people. She had heard rumors that they were not wife beaters, but the television programs would never report about things like that. Yurko, however, was sprawled out on the divan, snoring, a half-empty glass of warm brown beer on the floor near his stockinged feet. She gently kissed his head, which rested on one of her own pillows that she had elaborately cross-stitched in red and black poppies. At first, she wanted to take it from beneath his greasy hair-such little wisps of thin brown threads that hardly covered his premature baldness. But she felt sorry for him and decided to let him sleep.
He works so hard, she thought to herself. Lately, he had been logging overtime hours at the Chornobyl plant, where he did something with electricity-what, she wasn't sure, since he hardly ever talked to her about his work-it all seemed so mysterious and so important. He did explain that he wanted to put in more time, so that he would be considered for a promotion and sent to a special school where the plant's engineers were trained.
Marusia noticed that his undershirt was stained with sweat, and she wished she had asked for it before he fell asleep.
She stooped to stroke her son's hair, but Bosyi, the German shepherd asleep on the floor, awoke and growled.
"Sh, I won't wake him," she said with a smile. Bosyi thumped his tail and whined as though he were apologizing in advance for intervening in case she bothered his master. "See, I'm going," she whispered, and returned to the kitchen to resume her washing.
The water had turned blue from the cheap dye of the socks. She opened the drain stopper and watched the water gurgle slowly down the drain before she twisted and rinsed out the wet bundles. Marusia hung the clothing on the pegs fastened to the ceiling beams directly above the large tiled cookstove, where the dripping water caused a steady hissing on the cast-iron lids.
As Marusia was hanging up the clothes, Zosia came into the kitchen in her thin cotton robe which only half concealed her lacy black bra and slip. She drank milk straight out of the glass bottle and ignored Myrrko, the gray cat, who appeared out of the shadows to rub herself against Zosia's firm legs.
"Bozhe," Marusia whispered, eyeing her. "You're going to have another?"
Zosia quickly wiped her mouth with her sleeve. "What about it?" she said defiantly. "Anyway, I'm not sure I want it." She poured the milk into a dish for the cat. "Here sweetie, have the rest."
Zosia was still a good-looking woman at twenty-eight, with classic high cheekbones that sculpted the otherwise flat planes of her face. She was shapely and slender, with a matronly softness settling into her hips and waist. Her dark blue eyes were duller than the turquoise luster they'd had when she was a girl, but could still radiate great warmth whenever she smiled, which wasn't often. She would have been prettier without the stiff blond hair that she kept teased up into an unflattering beehive with the tattered ends tucked severely behind her ears. Her natural color was a softer, quieter chestnut, but she chose a shade of blond that became more brittle with each monthly dye treatment she received at the beauty shop near the Chornobyl plant.
Zosia pulled her robe around her stomach. "Don't worry-it's easier for me to keep this one than to get rid of it." Because abortion was the only available birth control in the Soviet Union, Zosia had not mourned her four past abortions. She knew women who had had twelve or fifteen, and she expected as many for herself if she kept up her sexual lifestyle. Unfortunately, the last time she was at the abortion clinic, the anesthetic failed her, and she had screamed from the pain when they suctioned the tissue out of her. The nurses in their starched white coned hats and shifts had held her down and yelled at her to shut up, it was nothing, what a fuss she was making! Zosia had thought she was going to die.
She felt nauseated from the memory and blamed it on the rich creamy milk. "I'll probably keep this one, Mamo," she said.
"Thank God," sighed Marusia, who had herself miscarried three babies before Yurko was born. Marusia cleared her throat but would not ask if this child was really Yurko's. It doesn't matter, she sternly told herself. It was Yurko's as long as he was married to Zosia. That's how it had to be. She would coddle it and love it and teach it lessons, the sort that Yurko and Zosia did not approve of, like the chants for the Mass and knowing whether or not to fast before certain holy days.
"Don't tell him about it, not yet," Zosia said, nodding her head toward the other room. "I'll tell him later. When things are better." She clopped out of the kitchen to watch television. Marusia heard her changing the channels and turning the volume on louder, and then she heard the dog barking and Yurko's hoarse voice telling Zosia to turn it off and leave him alone.
"When will things get better?" the old woman asked the cat, who sat staring at her empty bowl, expecting more milk. "I haven't seen them get along for one complete day since they were married." She ran fresh water into the sink for the next load, turning the water taps on full blast so as to drown out Zosia's voice calling out to her son.
Use of this excerpt from THE SKY UNWASHED may be made only for purposes of promoting the book, with no changes, editing, or additions whatsoever, and must be accompanied by the following copyright notice:
Copyright c 2000 by Irene Zabytko. All rights reserved.
What People are saying about this
One of the joys of reading is coming across a novel in which the author's voice is so perfectly wedded to an important subject that the blending becomes art. Such a novel is Irene Zabytko's The Sky Unwashed, wherein the inexplicable events of the larger world are broken down into the small constituent tragedies which lie at the core and which history too often overlooks. Zabytko's voice become the voice of the forgotten in a moving and memorable book.
Meet the Author
Irene Zabytko, a bilingual, first-generation Ukrainian American, grew up in the Ukrainian Village section of Chicago. She is the recipient of the PEN Syndicated Fiction Award and her work has been heard on NPR's The Sound of Writing.
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This beatifully written book reads as if it were a fable, except that the lives of millions of real humans were, and are, directly affected. The Ukraine seems to be stuck in the 1930's with people's hopes limited by their inability to acquire wealth, of tangibles or intangibles. Treating a nuclear plant like a coal-mine is enraging; allowing one's children to expire in the tainted atmosphere of bureacracy is immoral. The author contains her views with feminist linguistic restraint. Men, she thinks, treat women as thoughtlessly and crudely, as the Russian government handles its power plants' supply of energy. The novel reads so quickly. It too seems to have acquired a half-life.
This is by far the most depressing book I have ever read. I thoroughly hated it even though I am obsessed with reading about Chernobyl. Awful book. Do not read if you love animals. I was not prepared for the cruelty and I will not soon be able to forget it.
I have read multiple books involving Chernobyl, and this has been by far one if the best- I could not put it down.
An excellent portrayal of the Chornobyl catastrophe, as told by an elderly Ukrainian woman living in a village near the nuclear plant. Wonderfully written page turner, couldn't put it down.
The victims 'especially the women' in this novel are heroic in their own unique way. They turn chaos into a struggle for human dignity. I applaud Irene for her novel. I have relatives living in the Ukraine and I have worked in the nuclear industry in the U.S. I used Irene's novel as part of my research for my novel, CHERNOBYL MURDERS.
Irene Zabytko presented an excellent novel based on the worst nuclear (civilian) explosion in the world. In the book, the reader encounters the deep human touches of the survivors of this terribly mishandled occurence, orchestrated by Moscow.
Though written about a terrible depressing time, the character of the people shines through. We are so fortunate to live where we do and in this time in history. This story, though fiction, gives a picture of the hardships the people in this region endured.