A cauliflower for Ida
Press and speech freedoms in Ukraine have seriously deteriorated as the conflicts besetting the country have intensified. Many newspapers have been forced to close after pressure from Russian separatists and self-appointed local leaders. The Ukrainian poet and journalist Lyuba Yakimchuk is now an exile in her own country. She writes in a language that in the eyes of the pro-Russian separatists is that of the enemy and refuses to stop exposing the unfolding situation in the country. For this issue of PEN/Opp, she has written a satirical piece on what it’s like to be a journalist in today’s Ukraine.
“Mama doesn’t love me. That’s why I moved from that apartment,” muttered Ida, cradling her thin, small face in her hands.
“Why do you think that?” I ask.
“She shuts herself up in her room. Away from me. When she eats, she watches television or simply stares off into space.” This little girl avoids my glance and stares out the window.
I am looking at Ida’s skinny wrists and thinking about how I can close myself off from her, and the main thing is: why? Ida, with her fluffy eyelashes and side braid, looks like a fifteen-year-old. And she behaves like a teenager, because teenagers are the ones who run away from home. You feel like cuddling her, patting her on the head, and then kissing her. My hand is already on her hair. Ida wriggles away:
“She doesn’t talk to me. And at work she only deals with readers’ requests, the elevator, and the books. She is the only one in the entire book stacks.”
“Is this a library?”
“Yep, the one near the SBU.”
Ida has been at my place just a very short time. I had placed an ad about renting a room to a guy, but she was the who knocked on my door. Well, with my salary I can’t pick and choose. To tell the truth, the idea of renting to her was more appealing to me. I would never have thought that she would end up in my embraces the very first evening. So, naturally, I asked to see her passport. She is 22. So she’s not jail-bait, not at all. She’s a student at the pedagogical university. Well, after what went on yesterday, I won’t be able to take any rent from her. We hooked up. I’m going to have to wriggle out of the situation all by myself. Fine, we’ll talk later… Call.
In the kitchen Ida is finishing her green tea, and I’m speaking from the corridor, which is crammed with all sorts of junk. As I was talking I tripped over her practical, checkered purse with something hard inside. Maybe her books.
“This isn’t my apartment. I rent it from Ihor,” I explain to her loudly from the corridor, moving closer to the kitchen door. “He’s either a sanitary engineer or a locksmith, I can’t say for sure. If something breaks, he fixes it. It’s very convenient. I rent the apartment together with the books and junk. There is a lot of historical literature here. For a journalist this is…”
Yes, I’m a journalist. A freelancer. That means I can sleep until noon and write the news in the rest of my free time. As it is, nothing happens in our city in the morning; the best stuff happens after lunch. To be honest, there’s not much news around here, so I have to…how can I put it better?…uh…make stuff up. Someone is creating events when they hold some kind of protest action or art happening. A food and water festival or a public meeting along the lines of “How long can you yell at your wife?” or “Spit out the finger!” One time a member of the regional council somehow bit off a security guard’s finger. I think it was the index finger. Well, some events do take place, but rarely. I create events with words. In the beginning there was the word and then action. Even if nothing has happened, no local idiotic law has been passed, I need to write four or five news items a day. Can you imagine? Four or five news items in a city where nothing ever happens! In the sticks! This is almost unreal. The quota is my own personal one because I’m paid by the piece. So, in order to cover my rent, pay the utility bills, and buy food every day, I have to write a lot, and sometimes I make things up in my head. And there’s always a lot going on in there. This work is not as easy as it looks, and it’s thankless to boot.
Making up a news item means writing text that blends in with the certainty of existence, the current of news, something that is simultaneously akin to the truth, something that will affect the reader but you won’t get burned in the process. If our councilman had not bitten off that poor man’s finger, it would have been necessary to make it up. It is easy to believe in surrealistic things, easy and joyful. But any made-up story should be tentatively legal, so they don’t stick you in jail. And it should be interesting, otherwise my employer, the solid web portal All-Ukrainian Truth, will simply not publish boring material, for example, about a group of pensioners who get together at the library on Thursdays. The country is indifferent to a group of pensioners, unless they are manufacturing sausage there clandestinely or growing marijuana. That’s the way it is. So, if I wrote boring texts, I would simply go hungry.
No, I’m not ashamed. I don’t take bribes like the mighty of this world. I don’t traffic in people or their organs; I don’t even steal from anyone. I sell ideas that are acute and beautiful in their wholeness. And they don’t hurt anyone. I create news out of thin air. There is an unwritten journalistic principle: “Only bad news is good news.” Although I would formulate my own private criterion this way: A text is successful if people want to gossip about it. In any kind of text there should be an inner dramatic composition, and it should also exist in the news. In this I am not a journalist but an artist. Another fundamental criterion of an artistic work is veracity. Not verisimilitude but veracity, yes. If my news item doesn’t stand out from others, doesn’t sound far-fetched, is contextualized properly but at the same time sucks the reader into its internal conflict, then it is true. Well, okay, that’s artistic truth, but it’s truth nonetheless. There are security precautions, however, because you can always encounter a person who will want to sue you for libel. That’s why this is veeeerrry responsible work. But you can forget about fame and copyright and publishing these texts as a separate book. Picture a collection of poetry entitled Donbas News or Donbas Apricots—with news inside. No satisfaction apart from a miserly honorarium—for the rent, utility bills, food, and secondhand clothing.
“Ida, I’m going out!”
For some news. Maybe I’ll catch something.
Outside it’s wet because of this senseless, joyful rain, and I don’t have an umbrella. Shoppers at the Central Market are rushing about, and the spikes of their parasols nearly land in my eye. If they’re not poking me, they’re pouring cold rain down my shirtfront.
I like going to the market more than to the supermarket because it’s always bustling there, and you might become a casual witness to a scandal or a shoplifting, and that means catching a piece of news. I am also drawn to these rows of lacquered fruits and vegetables. Behind them is the meat pavilion, where aunties invite you to buy a neck or breast or something else. But what I love most is the stands that sell offal. Although some people like kidneys, which have a delicate structure with a faintly sweet trace of urine, I am no fan of urine therapy, even in this sophisticated form. This is some sort of Dublinesque gluttony, honestly. Or graphomania. What I like most is pork liver. If you buy perfect, previously unfrozen, that is, nearly warm liver, after you cook it, it simply melts in your mouth. This liver has a bittersweet taste and grainy structure. Perhaps only grains of black earth, on which weeds have grown for several years while the earth has been “resting,” have the same kind of jeweled faceting as liver. Or honeycomb brimming with golden honey. Earth, honey, or liver fresh out of a piglet, now fried up.
Liver is being sold only by one aunty, who looks as though she has just returned from the USSR. She is soft, like a baba au rhum, with a rosy flush spread over her lardy and somewhat flabby face, wearing a calico dress that goes down to her calves, and on her head is a tall, white cap à la seller of Soviet deficit goods. With a gleaming knife she cuts off a half-kilogram piece and shoves it into a transparent plastic bag.
“You don’t want the blood?” In front of my eyes she shakes a balloon through which you can see this brown, nearly black, liquid studded with clots. Nearby is a dish filled with natural sausage casings.
“You add a glass of milk to it and you cook up some buckwheat groats. So that the sausage will be soft.”
The look of this broth makes my stomach lurch; I hope I don’t barf, if only…ugh…some lemons. This is a childhood trauma. My Uncle Golega has his own farm. He keeps fowl, cows, and pigs, and several times a year he drinks a mug of still-warm blood from a pig that has just been slaughtered. Fresh blood, can you imagine? What kind of vegetarian cafes can there be in this country if people in Ukrainian villages are drinking fresh pigs’ blood? Of course, this practice is not all that widespread, but it’s still thriving. But blood is not a suitable topic for the news. At least not this time….Yes, I’ll ring back. I’ll look for something else.
Blossoming on the vegetable stands is a head of cauliflower that looks like the eye of some kind of huge beast or a brain. Is there such a thing as a plant brain? So, cauliflower, what are you thinking about with that brain? Maybe about a Roman ruler who relinquished power at the peak of his empire in order to cultivate such flowers. I will bring you to Ida; I’ll present you to her along with a volume of Cortázar. But where the news is concerned, you need something close to the people, because I’m not going to be writing a novel. People crave bread and games, bread and games.
Through the wicket of the kiosk the aunty handed me a loaf of rye bread, and I asked her for another loaf, the most popular one. She gave me a long loaf of “Ukraїnskyi” bread. When the aunty was sticking it into the transparent plastic bag, as though into a condom, I already knew that this would be my first news item of the day.
“Look, I brought you a flower.” I give Ida the cauliflower. Ida glances up from beneath her brows, takes my bouquet, slams shut her notebook, puts on her shoes, grabs her purse, and throws the bouquet into her purse (why does she need it in her purse?). She spends three minutes rooting through it, rushes across the apartment, and finds her keys on the window ledge in the kitchen.
“And here’s a book for you.”
She rushed out.
6 April 2014, 13:41
“Luhansk woman finds dead rat inside a loaf of bread
Yesterday, 6 April, a woman from Luhansk found a rat inside in a loaf of “Ukraїns′kyi” bread that she had purchased at a kiosk in the Luhansk Central Market. The woman and her adult son found the rat after they had consumed half the loaf. The creature was baked into the bottom of the loaf produced by the local bread-baking plant “Luhanskkhlib.”
This morning the young man was hospitalized, diagnosed with “intoxication.”The product suppliers deny all responsibility, and the сenter for disease control, where the victim went, assured him that there was no cause for concern because the rat had been well baked.
All-Ukrainian Truth is conducting its own investigation into the case of the rat found in the loaf of bread.”
The news ticker is bristling with red sections of text. The words “Luhansk…in Luhansk” flash by non-stop. What’s happening? Who’s working here? Did they send their own correspondent? Did they suspect something? They don’t believe?
6 April 2014, 13:17
“Separatists in Luhansk seize the SBU office
Separatists in Luhansk took the SBU office by storm, smashing doors and windows. The Internet publication The Eastern Variant reports:
The meeting participants made their way to the second floor and began smashing windows with huge bricks. Several ‘activists’ crawled out onto the ledge of the building. Smoke is billowing at the entrance to the building: smoke grenades are in operation. An ambulance has arrived on the scene, according to an eyewitness statement.”
When this happened, there was no other color but red. There was a lot of light. White. And red objects all around. Red shelving, the red roots of books of various shades, blank forms for ordering books and journals with red flow charts. What was written there? Márquez or Marx? You can no longer look around, bring anything into focus. Books are dumped all over the floor, and there is a clump of long hair, also red, on top of them. Ground into the wood parquet is blood, like poor-quality paint that doesn’t cover the old layer but only ruins it totally. And a head of cauliflower, like an enucleated brain—red. Who was here, what happened here? I don’t remember anything. I don’t know how I ended up here. I’m studying here at the university. I don’t know. Yes, only red.
A sickly-look man was sitting in the library’s Internet room. He said he was from Yakutia. A news ticker was open on his screen: “Luhansk woman finds dead rat in a loaf of bread,” “Separatists in Luhansk seize the SBU office.” He recounted why he had come. He said that he was together with those who were here in the captured SBU office on the other side of the park.
“Why aren’t you doing this in your Yakutia?” I asked. “Eh? Why don’t you capture a few buildings in Yakutia?”
“Over there, people are not ready for changes; they’re not ready yet. But you are hot-blooded; there will be a lot of your volunteers. And the changes will be grand!”
“Listen, Yakut,” piped up our regular reader, a gray-haired man sitting at the next computer station. I don’t remember his last name. His first name was Mykola. “Take your Yakuts, your Chechens, and whoever else is with you and bugger off with them to your Yakutia!”
The Yakut got up and left. Did he get offended? I wondered. Ida, the daughter of our employee, came up to me. She wanted to see her mother right away. They had quarreled or something. She didn’t want to call her but see her in person. You can’t just walk into the book stacks. They are located in the center of the library, and you can get there only by an elevator that is hidden among the shelves next to the reserves desk. She wanted me to escort her to the elevator because people are not allowed there without an accompanying employee. Once she gets there, she knows her way around. This isn’t the first time. But the Yakut returned and he was not alone. With him were around twenty young guys with submachine guns. All of them were dressed in camouflage. My heart dropped. One of them nudged me with the butt of his gun and I jumped away. I almost fell on top of Ida. What was she wearing? A red soccer jersey and jeans. Then they dashed over to the gray-haired man, Mykola, twisted his hands behind his back, and dragged him to the exit. He was sturdy and tried to break free, but to no avail. He was coughing up blood; they had probably knocked out one of his teeth. The Yakut stayed behind and pushed me into the bibliographic department, and Ida was shouting something at him: take your hands off or something like that.
What? How did everything start? I have already told your colleague. A man with a receding hairline, sickly-looking. Yes. He called someone and those people came with submachine guns. Some kind of bandits. They dragged the reader away, they locked me in here. Right here. Yes. Ida was screaming…She was dressed in red, like I said earlier.
6 April 2014, 20:04
“One person killed in Luhansk library
A fragment of a human body has been found in the Luhansk Oblast Library. Police have arrived at the scene. In the meantime, efforts are underway to determine the gender and identity of the victim. Police officers are refusing to comment on the case.
According to a source, this fragment may be a human brain.
A special correspondent of All-Ukrainian Truth in Luhansk is verifying this information.”
 Security Service of Ukraine.