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from the February 2017 issue: International Graphic Novels: Volume XI

Doors

The story is set in Lviv, Ukraineformerly Soviet Lvov, and until 1946 Polish Lwów. In this chapter it is still Soviet Lvov, where the narrator lives with her grandmother (whom she calls Aba), her great-grandmother, and her opera-singer mother, Mariannauntil Marianna, as a leader of the Ukrainian independence movement, is shot dead during a public rally in 1988.

 

Every evening Great-Granma locked the front door according to her own elaborate ritual, as if she believed she could protect us from uninvited guests, the same as the ones who had called at her home in 1937, taking her husband away with them forever. She never went back to that story, though Aba regularly reminded us of it: “That evening they rang the doorbell. Papa said it was a mistake and he’d be right back, kissed me good-bye, and left with the strangers. I never saw him again.”

It happened in Leningrad, where Aba and Great-Granma were living before the war. It’s no surprise that at an early age I developed fears of an unexpected ring at the door.

And so Great-Granma always checked first to make sure the outside door, painted in a dark color, was securely slammed shut, then she turned the key in the lock twice, hung up a solid metal chain and sealed it with another, white door, which she locked too, but with a different key. This arrangement couldn’t be opened from the outside, which used to annoy Mama, who liked to come home late, and either had to wake the entire household, or have Great-Granma stay up for hours, waiting for her return.

Each of us had her own set of keys: the long thin one sang falsetto and opened the dark door; the short one with an unusual rounded end sighed in a bass tone and dealt with the downstairs gate; the flat, modern one fitted the letter box and was plainly incapable of producing any sound at all. Only Great-Granma had a key to the white door, and nobody knew where she kept it in the daytime.

This door caused me dreadful anguish. Double-locked, chained and bolted, it aggravated my sense of insecurity, as if I were inside a besieged fortress, and if only single-locked it scattered seeds of danger, seeming to expose us to the invasion of strangers with the power to destroy our world.

The dark, outer door was lightweight. I was capable of giving it a violent slam to express my daily, quite understandable emotions—I’d be furious with Aba when she told me to dress up warmer before leaving the house. The dark door had a “Judas trap” in it—a round peephole made of plain glass, covered on the inside with a small piece of threadbare fabric. Great-Granma perceived dangers in it as well—first, as soon as the little curtain was raised, the person on the other side would notice that he was being watched, or would know there was someone at home, and second, as Great-Granma saw it, he had the chance to attack through the peephole.

“First just make a tiny chink, to be sure if it’s a strange man or one of ours,” she taught me. “A strange man might shove a metal rod through the glass and you’ll end up losing an eye!”

The stranger was always male.

If someone buzzed our intercom, we had to run out onto the balcony and look to see who was at the main front door, and if it was someone unfamiliar, we had to shout: “Who do you want?”

It was an intimidation strategy—the person down in the street didn’t immediately realize where the voice was coming from, and in bewilderment, staring like a blind man, would start looking for the questioner. Being a floor higher up gave us an advantage, enabling us to repel the attack by saying: “There’s no one here by that name!”

There were frequent mistakes, which caused Aba and Great-Granma immense distress. Suppose a man came along looking for somebody called Pavel Ivanovich Petrov.  Nothing out of the ordinary, but at once you could hear the tension in their voices. They’d spend ages wondering who the stranger might be and what it all portended—nothing good, of course.

We lived right in the city center, and quite often someone would start banging on our door at night. The bell ringing unexpectedly, when we were already in bed, was as thunderous as the trumpets of angels heralding Judgment Day, and cut off the soft domestic past from the violent present like a knife—it could be them, and they had absolute power over people, free rein to do anything at all to them—kidnap them, kill or torture them. The servants of darkness were bound to be dressed in black.

The white, night-time door was doleful, imbued with melancholy. It moved heavily on its hinges, gave out a dull noise, and had no peephole, and the long key was difficult to turn in the lock. If I got up in the middle of the night and saw that the white door was shut, I was seized with a sense of despair and claustrophobia. Its uniform surface made me think of the Russian word glukhoman’, meaning “wilderness"—the white door embodied remote, boundless Siberia, long transports of convicts, an endless snowy plain, and the clank of manacles.

As I have said, between the dark door and the light one there was also a chain. During the day it served to ventilate our pitiful, windowless kitchen. Thanks to the chain a chink appeared that let through noises and air, but not people: the perfect illustration of a state of limbo, an unsettling sense of being at the same time here and there. I would seek opportunities to put an end to this uncertainty, so I’d open the door wide, ostensibly to give the kitchen a thorough airing, or I’d shut it on the excuse that it was cold. What a delight it was to open or close the door at will, what a sweet illusion of power! Whenever I opened it, the mirror hanging in the hall would reflect the stained-glass window on the stairwell, and instead of boiled carrots the kitchen would start to smell of a forest; and then when I closed it, in seconds my childish faith that here at home we were safe returned.

Great-Granma didn’t trust the chain. Whenever it was stretched between the door and the outside world, she would say we had to listen out, in case someone came up and tried to chop it in two with wire cutters.

And indeed, sometimes rapid footsteps were heard on the stairs and a figure would appear on the other side—two supple fingers would slide into the chink, turning every which way in search of the blocked end of the chain, one would go tense to grab hold of it, while I, instead of reaching out a hand and helping from the inside, would lend support passively; when further grappling ensued, as the fingers fought with the metal, I’d be dancing on the spot with emotion, until the knot was finally untied: the fingers would flick off the metal bonds, the subdued chain would strike against the wood, the door would open wide and in would burst a goddess—airy, noisy, lively Mama.

The door-locking rituals were repeated for years on end without change, but the more the Soviet Union shook in its foundations, the more heart Great-Granma put into them. Although she never said it aloud, I suspect she was no supporter of the Soviet regime, but nor was she a fan of those who wanted it overthrown. Most likely she was one of those people who only perceive the specific nature of the system in which they happen to live when it starts to peep in at the windows of their homes. The one that had appeared in 1937 had marked her for life. So the more often the people came out onto the streets of Lvov to campaign for independence, and the louder they spoke about things that had once been wreathed in silence, the more strenuously she made sure our front door was securely locked at night.

When about a year before her death Mama suddenly changed her language from Russian to Ukrainian, the rite of locking up was enriched by a new element. Once she had completed the usual ceremony, Great-Granma propped a wicker basket full of dirty laundry against the door, and from the next day she went on doing it for good. That was also when she started talking more and more about “Bandera’s men,” as she dubbed any Ukrainian patriots. Whenever we were left alone together, she’d tell me how the train carriage in which she’d been traveling to Lvov—then Polish Lwów—in 1944 had been strafed by them and that she feared them very much—almost as much as the Germans. Now she felt the same way: once again they were trying to get at her carriage, and whenever she leaned out of the window she saw her own granddaughter—my Mama—leading them. That girl, to whom she hadn’t spoken for years on end. That girl, who had defied her to become a singer, and was now defying her ideas about life by fighting for an independent Ukraine. So the dirty laundry basket became another tier in the barricade that for years they had been erecting between each other.

That was also when Great-Granma adopted the habit of intimidating me through language.  She’d be waiting in the hall, barring my passage with her own body.

“Don’t go talking out loud in Russian!” she’d warn. “Before you know it, they’ll haul you into a deserted yard and torture you!”

The next time she asked if I knew the Ukrainian epic poem Testament by heart.

“They catch women and children, drag them to a quiet spot and order them to recite it from memory. If you get it wrong, they’ll rape and torture you.”

I wasn’t afraid; I simply couldn’t imagine being lectured in the street about my knowledge of literature, and I didn’t believe that poetry could be combined with violence.

On the evening of that day when Mama’s body was brought home wrapped in the blue-and-yellow flag, Great-Granma neglected her ritual of securing the front door—it wasn’t even properly slammed shut. This was an expression of capitulation: Great-Granma had tried so hard, yet once again they had come and destroyed her world. Mama was laid on the table in the central room, and long candles were lit on either side of her. The melted wax left bright marks on the oak parquet. A long time after, I found out that Aba had had to buy off several decision-makers to stop them from doing an autopsy and keeping the body at the mortuary; she had managed it thanks to her connections in the medical world—she had once been an admired doctor.

Even so, she was surprised by the lack of KGB intervention. It might have seemed that now they were taking care to erase, falsify, or hush up the death of which they were guilty. That shot seemed ludicrous in every regard: not only had it missed its target, but for Lvov it had thundered like a bell bidding the remains of the undecided to come out onto the streets. Mama could have had no greater wish (though not so Aba, Great-Granma, or I). In the first days after the shot was fired everyone talked about the circumstances of her death: about the illegal demonstration around Klumba—the square also known as Lvov’s Hyde Park Corner—at which free elections were demanded; and about the sniper lurking on the roof of a nearby house, site of the grand Viennese Café before the war. People reckoned the sniper had been ordered to fire at the dissident, Chornovil, but Marianna had been moving about so energetically on the bed of the truck that she had shielded him. A pneumatic weapon was used, so nobody had heard a bang, but at the sight of the bloodstain blossoming on the singer’s beige dress some of the people had taken to their heels. Chornovil had continued the rally. He was reconciled to death—not in the sense of inner indifference to it, but indomitable courage trained into him by many years in the camps—in his case, his former fellow prisoners called his resilience “pathological." A doctor had come forward from the crowd, Chornovil had entrusted Marianna to his care and carried on with the rally. Efforts were made to shield him, or even to drag him off the truck by force. But no more shots were fired—to this day nobody knows why not. Either way, on that day Chornovil received as a gift from Mama an extra eleven years of life. I’m sure he must have remembered that in 1999, at the moment when his car was hit by a truck on the Boryspil highway.

Others remembered too, but not for long. In the first few days people talked and shouted, called and came to see us—it aggravated me so much that I felt hardened by a mixture of fury and helplessness, and for many years, whenever I saw liquid icicles of wax dripping onto the floor, that state came back to me. Contrary to the tradition that called for burial on the third day after death, arrangements were made for the funeral to be held next day, and—miraculously—nobody stood in Aba’s way when she tried to get a place in Lychakov Cemetery, Lvov’s foremost necropolis. In fact, in the 1980s there was no ban on burying the dead there yet, but you had to have a number of special permits, which Aba managed to obtain at lightning speed. True, the demonstration which the funeral became was brutally dispersed; true, they had been to see the director of the Opera to badger him with questions about Marianna; true, in the months that followed someone kept removing the thick layer of imitation flowers that coated the grave afresh each day. I was actually pleased about this last intervention—the blanket of plastic daffodils disgusted me, and seemed to separate me even further from Mama. Later on they stopped bothering with it, and the flowers were stuck to the gravestone for good. Autumn covered them with a blanket of leaves.

 

From the first day Aba waited for a summons to that place. Later she told me she had imagined just such a visit tens of thousands of times. She had assimilated the idea from early childhood: when she was a child of seven living in Leningrad, they had murdered her father, and when she was almost sixty and living in Lvov, they had killed her daughter. Between the first and the second incident she had never stopped hating them, and more or less openly expressing the fact as well. In 1944, when she had ended up in this city, she had decided to become a one-woman resistance movement—she made leaflets saying that Stalin was a criminal and dropped them through people’s letterboxes. I’m still at a loss to know why she never ran into repression for this act—I have no explanation apart from the special care of a guardian angel. She only paid one visit to that building on Dzierzhynsky Street, soon after Stalin’s death: she had been hounding them with official inquiries about her father’s fate. On the way there, she had removed the hatred from her face, coated it like a canvas in a new primer, and painted on a different expression—purely to extract any information at all from them. There she was received by a major with a cynical smirk. He was holding her father’s file—despite her requests it wasn’t put into her hands. Enigmatically he had announced that her father had died somewhere in the North. He had also added that from now on she needn’t carry the stigma of the daughter of an enemy of the people—the victims of Stalin’s terror had been rehabilitated. She still knew neither the date nor the place of her father’s death—they took great care to ensure that people spent years living in the shadow of their as if half-killed relatives.

It was all completely different in Mama’s case: her death was sucked into a void, it fell into a crack between eras. This time Aba wasn’t summoned anywhere—suddenly they had other things on their minds.  . . .

 

In the first years after the shot Great-Granma stopped bothering with the ritual door-locking. We would go to bed without extra protection, which brought me a degree of relief: the worst had already happened, so we could take a break from being afraid. After some time it all began again: the dark door, the chain, the light door. Perhaps she did it for my sake. Though in fact she no longer moved the basket into place. The mouldering wicker basket for dirty clothes had so many holes by now that it couldn’t be shifted to and fro—it would have been sure to fall apart.

 

 

From The House with the Stained-Glass Window, to be published by MacLehose Press in September 2017 © Żanna Słoniowska, 2016. Translation © 2017 by Antonia Lloyd-Jones. Reproduced by permission of MacLehose Press, an imprint of Quercus Books.

February 2017
International Graphic Novels: Volume XI
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