THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS: MRS. MERZHYNSKY
by Oksana Zabuzhko, 1994
In the most real of all possible worlds,
In a Kyiv that is just the same, only a little bit different
(All the cafes are on the opposite side of the street,
And the traffic runs the wrong way)
Larysa Kosach-Merzhynsky pushes a baby carriage
Along a sidewalk as sunlight falls through the leaves.
She's pale, a bit nervous after the morning's events.
(The nanny burned the baby's cereal and has to be dismissed!);
The child churns the air with its small legs, so Mrs. Merzhynsky
Stops the carriage and straightens the blanket,
Then bends over, nostrils flared, and drinks in
The warm, intoxicating fragrance of the infant's skin.
Unable to resist, she bursts into laughter
And buries her face in the frothy ticklish lace,
Then tenderly hums and clucks her tongue.
(You see, my dear Lesia, the doctor was right:
The consumption you had as a girl was simply from nerves.
You'll get married, have children, and it will all pass.)
In the cafe on Prorizna (now on the other side of the street)
An angel waits, his fiery wings hidden under a gray coat.
He orders his sixth coffee. A woman in a black dress enters,
whips off her gloves, and throws them down on the table.
The angel lifts up his eyes, then quickly looks away: she's not the one.
In the meanwhile Mrs. Merzhynsky
Pushes the baby carriage past the cafe:
I mustn't forget the cherry-wood chips for the samovar --
Only cherry charcoal has the wonderful smell
That Serhiy loves so. I must use the white tablecloth
For tea on the terrace. (Will the new cook
Manage to clean the silver?) When he comes home from work,
Still at the gate, still holding his briefcase, Mr. Merzhynsky
Opens his arms as if to embrace everyone at once:
His wife and child in the wicker chair,
The nanny, who has been forgiven, and even the cook in the background.
"Lilia and her husband and Liuda Starytska will drop by later. You know,
Liuda's Ronia is older than our daughter, but she still can't walk!"
Later Mrs. Merzhynsky sits by the lamp with her needlework.
The damp fragrance from the garden is more intense at dusk.
A neighbor's window slams; someone is calling the children home.
And then a cry rings out, probably from the Jewish quarter: "Miriam!"
(The hills echo "Miriam! Miriam!") Startled,
Mrs. Merzhynsky pricks her finger with the needle.
"What is it, dear?" "It's nothing." The glistening ruby
On her fingertip dries as a rusty spot on the cambric handkerchief.
Miriam, Miriam. O Lord. No, I can't remember.
"You're simply tired," he kisses her palm. "Isn't it time to go to bed?"
(She throws her arms around his neck with a sigh and a shiver.)
In the cafe on Prorizna (now on the other side of the street) the angel
orders his twelfth coffee. No one in sight. The clock
strikes twelve -- it must be midnight. Happy women
are asleep, exhausted by their loving labors. Mrs. Merzhynsky
lies motionless on her back beside her sleeping husband.
Her eyes, dry but burning as if after a long cry,
are open wide as she stares into the empty night.
Notes: Larysa Kosach was the real name of Lesia Ukrainka, Ukraine's most famous woman writer. She contracted tuberculosis as a child and was sickly most of her life. She was in love with Serhii Merzhynsky, who died of tuberculosis in 1901. She is usually portrayed in black and was known to have been high-strung. The writer Liudmyla Starytska-Cherniakhivska was a friend of the Kosach family. Miriam was the central figure in Lesia Ukrainka's play A Woman Obsessed which she wrote as Serhii Merzhynsky was dying. The subject of the play is Miriam's boundlesss love for the Messiah, which prevents her from being able to forgive his enemies.