Excerpt from The Enchanted Desna
Alexander Dovzhenko was born into a peasant family in the Desna River area in Northeast Ukraine in 1894. The autobiography of his early years recalls childhood pleasures in this idyllic setting, later disrupted by years of colonial oppression. Along with Sergei Eisenstein and Vasevolod Pudovkin, Dovzhenko is considered one of the Soviet Union’s greatest early filmmakers; his silent film Earth (1930), a poetic tribute to nature and Ukrainian village life, is still often regarded among the top ten best films of all time. In addition to his legacy as a silent film poet, he produced a brief autobiographical article of approximately twenty-one pages and two hundred and forty-five pages of notebooks kept from 1941 until his death. These record an intimate account of the Ukraine during the German invasion and occupation in the Second World War as well Dovzhenko’s inner development as film artist. Much has been lost; little exists in English print today. Dovzhenko died in 1956 after suffering two decades of Stalinist oppression. He left behind several scripts, most of which had also been banned by Soviet censors. His wife and creative partner, Yulia Solntseva, produced some of these including a 1965 Mosfilm and Dovzhenko Film Studio production of The Enchanted Desna (Zachrovannaya Desna) based on his 1942-1948 film-tale.
Autobiographically inspired, The Enchanted Desna can be regarded as a love story told from a young boy’s point of view. He recognizes life’s cycle and death amidst the natural beauty and plentiful bounty of nature — A certain mystery and sadness, the inevitability and law that out of what seemingly ends, come the pleasant things of this world. Throughout the journey, the reader is reminded of life’s delicate balance or as Sashko, the young boy, witnesses, the negative abundance of things: Riding a hay-filled wagon about to tip over is unpleasant. It’s unpleasant to look at a large fire, but pleasant to look at its embers. How pleasant it is to hug a foal. Or at daybreak to see your calf wandering in all by itself, to know it found its way home in the dark. I loved thunder, although it scared Mother, the downpour and loud wind for the gifts they brought to the orchard.
The following is an excerpt from this tale.
More than anything else in the world I liked music. If anyone were to ask what kind of music I preferred in my childhood, what instrument or musician, I’d have to say it was the sound of a scythe being hammered. On a quiet evening, before Saints Peter and Paul’s, Father would begin hammering his scythe in the orchard which to me made the most enticing music. Even today, if someone were to hammer a scythe under my window, I’d immediately grow younger and kinder, eagerly plunge into work. The high clear ringing reminded me of haymaking and aroused a sense of happiness and pleasure. I remember this from my earliest childhood.
“Hush Sashko, don’t cry,” Grandfather comforted me when suddenly I’d start to cry. “Don’t you cry, foolish one. We’ll hammer our scythes. Then we’ll go down to the Desna to a hayfield and cut hay. Afterwards, we’ll catch fish and cook ourselves a meal.”
I grew quiet. Grandfather took me in his arms and began telling me about meadow grass, about mysterious lakes — Beak Bill Lake, Church Lake, and Silent Lake — and about the Seim River. His voice was calming and his eyes kind. His hands were large and knotty and covered with hair. But they felt so gentle I couldn’t imagine they’d ever done anyone or anything harm. They’d never stolen, never killed, and never spilled blood. They only knew hard work and peace, charity and goodness.
“We’ll cut some hay and cook ourselves a meal. So don’t you cry, my little boy.”
I stopped crying. Quietly letting go of the earth with my fingertips, I floated mid-air to the shores of Silent Lake, Church Lake, and the Seim River. They were the most beautiful lakes and river in the world. There were none that compared with them.
Lying in the boat on Grandfather’s sheepskin coat, dreaming in this way, I gradually closed my eyes. But it didn’t grow dark inside my head. To this day, whenever I close my eyes, there’s no darkness in my soul. Instead my mind grows luminous, lights up the visible and invisible, the boundless and, at times, random sequence of pictures. They swell like waters of the Danube and Desna, their spring floods. Clouds float freely across blue expanses, gathering and tussling in such multitudes that if I were destined to tame a thousandth part of them, arrange them in a coherent series of books or films, I’d know I hadn’t burdened anyone and that my life had not been wasted.
If only I could describe what I saw in the sky! It was a world overflowing with giants and prophets locking in constant battle. A child’s soul could not always take this lightly, and I sank deep into sadness.
Everywhere I looked, I saw fighting and unrest — in the bark of oak and willow trees, in old tree stumps, in hollows, in marsh water, on pecked walls. Wherever my eyes rested I saw something that reminded me of men, horses, wolves, snakes and saints — of war, conflagration, battle, or deluge. Before my eyes, everything had a double life. Everything suggested an equivalent other; everything was similar to something already seen, imagined, or experienced a long time ago.
But wait — what am I doing? I meant to write about the boat, but instead I got sidetracked on clouds. Back to my beloved old boat in the barn…
Returning to a dream state, I closed my eyes again, and this time felt myself grow. Slowly, I began to feel the boat start to rock under me. It floated out of the barn into the orchard, through the grass between the trees and shrubs, past the cellar and lovage, past Grandfather. He sat on Baba’s lap dressed in a white shirt and gently smiled up at me. The boat drifted through the orchard, through the pasture to the meadow, and from there, past the farmsteads, to the Desna.
Strike up a tune, musicians; sing, angels in heaven; frogs along the banks, girls under willow trees! I’m sailing down the river. I’m sailing down the river while overhead the world floats past me. The spring clouds race carelessly through the sky, and beneath them wing birds of passage — ducks, gulls, cranes. Storks fly by like sleeping men. Flotsam drifts down the river — pieces of willow, elm, poplar, and small islands of green.
For the most part, that’s what I dreamt of in the boat. I’ve forgotten many of the details. Who knows, maybe it wasn’t dream after all. Maybe all this really happened on Desna. I’m convinced of it. But that was a long time ago and all memories eventually vanish. Never will my barefoot innocence return. Never again will tobacco bloom like a priest’s chasuble or will God’s Last Judgement frighten me, considering that man’s judgement has not frightened me.
To perform good deeds remained my only desire and it stayed with me for the rest of my life.
As the day drew to its end, the sunlit field blanketed with mist, I looked around worriedly. I must hurry. Guests were sailing past me in willow boats. Waves chased after waves on Desna calling forth thoughts from a distant warm land… What is it you want? What do you really want?
In early childhood four nursemaids looked after me. They were my brothers: Lavrin, Serhiy, Vasil, and Ivan. Folks said they weren’t destined to live long because they started singing early. All four of them would climb on top of the wattle fence, perch next to one another like sparrows and start singing. No one knew where or how they learned their songs. No one taught them.
After they died — all four in one day — from an epidemic, rumors spread that God took them for his own angelic choir. Perhaps they filled their early years with song because they sensed they didn’t have much time.
No wonder some particularly sensitive feminine souls couldn’t bear to hear their concerts. These women looked at the children, sorrowfully shaking their heads, crossed themselves and even burst into tears without ever really knowing why. “Oh, there’s nothing good in store for these children.”
It was said that misfortune visited our white cottage on Whitsunday. I was about a year old.
When Father first found out his sons were dying while at a fair in Borzna, he hurriedly hitched up his horses. For years people talked about how he drove them some thirty versts  whipping them unsparingly in order to save time, shouting for the ferryman on the Desna, then pushing on. Upon reaching home, the horses crashed the gate, collapsing in bloody foam. Father ran up to the children, but they were already dead. I was the only one alive. What could he do? Hit Mother? Mother was half dead herself. Father cried bitterly over us:
“Oh, my children, my children! My little nightingales! Why was your song cut short?”
After that, he called us his eaglets, and Mother called us her nightingales. For a long time people cried and pitied us because we’d never become hay mowers or plowmen or brave soldiers.
To what should I compare the depth of Father’s grief? Perhaps to darkest night. Inconsolable, he damned God’s name. But God had to remain silent. Had He appeared in all his glory, Father would probably have jumped Him, or driven a pitchfork through Him or struck Him with an ax.
He even chased the priest out of the yard, declaring he’d bury his children himself.
Fifty years later, I saw a similar outburst of grief and anger, this time not at God but at us, grown men. It came over him on the banks of the Dneiper, among the abandoned Kiev hills, where he wept for the second time reproaching everyone. Rightly or wrongly, it is not for us to judge, but Father felt enslaved by the Nazi invaders. After all, suffering is not measured by external pressures, but by the severity of a deep, internal shock. And who among us has not been shocked by life?
I’ve seen many handsome people in my lifetime, but none quite like Father. He had dark hair, and large, thoughtful gray eyes forever filled with sorrow. Yet despite the sadness that encircled him and that his freedom was shackled, his spirit endured.
How much land Father plowed, how much grain he reaped! He was a man of great agility; his movements were sure and harmonious. His skin was flawless; his hair, shiny with a large wavy crest. And his hands were a piece of bread up to his chin so that nothing spilled onto the tablecloth spread on the grass close to the Desna. He loved good jokes and a polished turn of phrase. He knew how to be tactful and respectful even though he hated the authorities — especially the Czar. Father hated the Czar’s crimson goatee, his flimsy physique.
One thing Father didn’t have was good clothes. They were ugly, faded and poor. It was as if some vandals for the sake of degrading the image of man covered an antique statue with dirt and rags. Sometimes, with our dog Pirate, I watched from my hiding place in the raspberry bushes as he staggered home from the tavern, dejected, staring at the ground. I wanted to cry. Yet even then he was handsome. Whether he reaped or sowed, yelled at Mother or Grandfather, smiled at his children, beat the horse or was beaten by police, a vibrant spirit remained deep within him. Even under fascism when he wandered the streets a homeless 80-year old man, abandoned by everyone, mistaken for a beggar and handed kopecks, he was still handsome.
Father could’ve modeled for drawings of knights, gods, apostles, great scientists, and enlightened beings. Somehow, he had the right features for all of them. He produced a lot of bread, fed many people and rescued them from the flood; he plowed much land before he could be freed from his sorrow.
Now as if to fulfill some eternal law of life, having bowed my bared, graying head and sanctified my thoughts with silence, I turn to him, beg him to spell out his last will. He stands before me in the distant Kiev hills, his beautiful face beaten blue by the Nazis. His hands and feet have swollen; tears mist his eyes, and his voice falters. I can barely hear his long gone words, “My children, my little nightingales…”
 verst — unit of distance equal to 0.6629 miles
Dzvinia Orlowsky is a founding editor of Four Way Books and the author of three poetry collections including “Except for One Obscene Brushstroke” (Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2004). Her poetry and translations have appeared in numerous anthologies including “A Map of Hope: An International Literary Anthology; From Three Worlds: New Writing from the Ukraine”; and “A Hundred Years of Youth: A Bilingual Anthology” of 20th Century Ukrainian Poetry. She currently teaches at the Solstice Low-Residency MFA in Creative Writing Program at Pine Manor College.