Eva Maria Chapman

Short Story

Ringing in her Ears

The roller skaters rumbled noisily past. Quiet settled in the park once again. Yelena strained her ears. She was getting deaf but knew it was a matter of tuning in. Yes there it came, an unmistakable ringing, very faint at first but enveloping her in a vibrational field. She sank into the bench and let its healing powers envelop her. Bliss.

She plummeted back to another time, another place; to her childhood in Russia; trundling north on a train and staying with her grandfather in his little wooden hut within the Siberian taiga. Dyedka, as she called him, had told her all about the Ringing Cedars. He took her deep within the forest to see one of these legendary trees.

‘Planted during the reign of Ivan the Great.’ Dyedka said, bowing before it, in great reverence. ‘All trees store benevolent energy,’ he told the wide-eyed child, ‘which purifies the air we breathe, and heals us with nuts and oils. But this particular cedar is the most powerful, as it is capable of absorbing vast amounts of God’s love and light.’ Dyedka stretched up and lovingly traced his hand over the purplish blue ridges of the bark. ‘In the year 2000 this tree will be five hundred years old and at that point will start emitting a ringing sound. This is its signal that it is ready to be cut down and used for the benefit of all people.’ Yelena looked up in awe at the magnificent tree towering above her.

‘I won’t be alive then my little Yelenichka, but you will be. And in the dark times of the 21st century, mankind will need all the healing energies it can get.’

But dark times descended on Yelena’s life much earlier. After she returned to her village in Ukraine, life became increasingly grim. The rich brown plot of land her parents lovingly tended, was taken over by the State. Their beautiful old apple orchard was destroyed and incorporated into an ugly collective farm. Impossible grain quotas were set and requisitioned to feed the hallowed workers of the glorious Russian revolution. Peasants who dared oppose the wholesale robbery of their livelihood, had to be taught a lesson. Stalin starved them. In the winter of 1932-33 Yelena watched, hollow eyed, as Dodik and Vlodya, her small twin brothers died, one after another, in the desperate arms of their Mama. Not even vermin were left to eat, as people boiled leaves for nourishment. The dark time did not lift. Secret police now permeated every corner of their lives. A beloved history teacher, bespectacled Vladimir Pavlovich, who had enthralled his pupils with tales of Tsars and monks, was denounced and shot as a traitor. Each Spring the snow melted. The fear did not. It froze hearts and minds with filaments of ice. In the hot summer of 1941, sixteen-year-old Yelena blushed when young men winked at her, and as she dared hope that things were improving, an even deeper evil cast its shadow. Hitler invaded. Armed only with sticks, the young men valiantly and pathetically tried to defend their village. No match against the shiny warriors of the Third Reich. Yelena and millions of others were bagged like animals and herded to Germany as Ostarbeiters, workers from the East. She had one last glimpse of Mama’s anguished face through the bars of the cattle truck, as it shunted West. She became a Nazi slave, worked ruthlessly, in a Krupp munitions factory on the edge of Magdeburg. Only the memory of Dyedka and the Ringing Cedar kept her going as she sorted endless trays of bullets and watched fellow Ostarbeiters waste away or get beaten to death. But any idea of God’s love was obliterated as her girlhood slipped away in a world gone increasingly mad. Allied bombers relentlessly pounded the baroque city, year after year. Phosphorescent tongues of fire raced through the streets like demented dragons, destroying all in their wake.

It was Bert who had saved her. Yelena gazed with moist eyes at the patch of grass opposite the park bench. There on a checked blanket she saw herself with Bert happily sharing piroshki. She had carefully rolled rounds of pastry, just like her Mama and Babushka, and filled them with vegetables which Bert had grown in their allotment. These pasties as Bert called them, were washed down with a thermos of hot homemade black currant juice. Yes, wonderful Bert. As a young British soldier, he had found her in a transit camp in a destroyed corner of Eastern Europe; had enveloped her in his arms as she shivered in her faded floral frock. Although only twenty years old, her once rich brown hair had turned totally white. She had seen things that no person should ever see; humanity dragged so low that darkness hovered in every pocket of the earth. Bert had looked into her face, ruffled her white tresses and said, ‘I can see you have been marked by terrible suffering but it has made you all the more beautiful.’

He brought her to live with him and his widowed mother in a grimy terrace, in a bleak Northern town. Bert’s devotion shored her up against the terrible homesickness that gnawed her insides. She had gone back home in May 1945. As Hitler lay dead in his bunker, she picked her way through rubble, and began the long trek East. But her village was gone, still smoking, burnt to the ground; all inhabitants slaughtered in revenge, by a retreating German army. She didn’t dare ascertain whether the cadavers lying in fields of stubble, their eye sockets ravaged by vultures, were once the warm breathing flesh of her kin. Secret police circled with the vultures. Stalin regarded all returning Ostarbeiters as traitors. ‘Shame on you! You still live. You served the enemy. You should have killed yourself.’ The fraction of Nazi slaves who had survived against all odds, were now sent for ‘Re-education’ in the Donetsk mines. Yelena escaped. Another long walk. More fear. But this time she found the welcoming arms of Bert and his promise of a new life and lots of babies.

The babies never materialised. In line with her white hair, her ovaries had wizened into early menopause. No child would grace her shrivelled womb or fill the aching emptiness. Her body had been given a stark message about the world, like the line in the song, ‘love don’t live here any more.’

Bert kissed her wide Slavic forehead. ‘Don’t matter a jot to me, my beauty.’ During her mother-in-law’s last illness, Yelena tenderly wiped her brow, dreading to imagine how her own Mama had died.

It was a joyous event when Bert managed to gain an allotment on the edge of town. Many happy days were spent on the patch, planting and cultivating vegetables and fruits. All to be processed and cooked in Yelena’s steaming kitchen.

Glasnost began to melt the frozen edges of the Cold War. The USSR collapsed with the iron curtain. Travel became easier. On the eve of the new millennium, Yelena began to hear a ringing in her ears. ‘Old age?’ Bert suggested. Yelena knew otherwise. She dreamed of going to Russia, but was afraid. Too many carrion fed ghosts. But the ringing became more insistent. She persuaded Bert to accompany her. As they wound by train through the vast Siberian taiga, she chewed her fingers with worry. Loggers were decimating huge swathes of forest. A new breed of entrepreneur had no compunction in selling off valuable raw resources to a greedy West and swathing many a plump, Russian wife in heavy, gold jewellery.

Would Yelena’s magic tree still be there?

When they reached Dyedka’s village, Bert couldn’t keep up with his wife, as she ran like a girl into the forest. When he caught up with her, she was standing at the foot of an enormous tree, tears streaming down her cheeks.

‘Just listen’ she breathed, eyes shining in a stream of sunlight filtering through the pine needles.

Bert listened and heard it. A distinct ringing.

An old woman came up to them, and babbled excitedly. The soothing rich language of Yelena’s girlhood came flooding back. She understood what the old woman was saying. It confirmed what Dyedka had told her, so long ago.

‘This tree is calling us,’ said the woman. ‘It has stored cosmic energy for five hundred years and now wants its light to be spread into the dark places of the world. It must be chopped down within the next year. If not it will die and all that energy will be lost.’

Yelena thought of the town where she and Bert lived. A maze of terraces, blackened by years of coaldust. A grey shabby corner of the world where rheumy-eyed pensioners stuffed white sugary buns into toothless mouths. She decided then and there. Dyedka’s ringing cedar would shine on them somehow. The logistics and bureaucracy were daunting. Bert shook his head. ‘It’s impossible.’ But Yelena was determined. During the process, Bert took ill and on his deathbed caressed his wife’s cheeks.

‘I have been looking at your face for nearly 60 years and you look even more lovely than the first day I saw you. You have blessed my life. Use what money you need to bring wood from the tree here and create a bench in the park, in memory of our love.’

Yelena sipped hot black currant juice and stretched up, comtemplating the greyness of the sky. She winced at a twinge from an old injury in her back where she had been sliced by a piece of flying glass as bombs pulverised the Krupps munitions plant. She felt the pain ease and a lightness infuse her whole being. The cedar was performing its magic.

An old bent woman hobbled along the path with two sticks. She headed for the space next to Yelena and sat down heavily. Tight angry creases knotted her gnarled face. A surly grunt greeted Yelena’s friendly hello. They sat quietly together. Gradually the old woman unfurled and leaned back into the bench. A faint ringing tone permeated the stillness of the air. The old woman’s face began to soften and she sighed a deep sore sigh. ‘You know it’s doin’ me arthritis so much good just sittin’ here. Must be the fresh air.’

The mass of creases on her face transformed into a wondrous smile that lit up the whole park.

Yelena sighed with deep contentment.

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