from SISSY by Ben Borek
The tale of granddad held a mystic flavour-
His parent’s sleepy hamlet, or osada,
Where thirteen families would daily labour
On slate-flat land to stock a common larder
With beets and plump potatoes, where each hive
Of village bees was tended to in five
Slavonic tongues, where barren Aunt Svetlana
Nursed every infant at her gushing breast,
Was scene, one night when, like a gaunt banana,
The crescent moon suspended in the west
Poked through a spongy wall of autumn cloud
And lit the way home for a weary crowd-
These were the settlement’s thirteen strong men
Who’d harvested all day from when the cock’s
Stentorian aria for the hen
Instructed them to pull on woollen socks,
Gulp down their buckwheat porridge and proceed
Towards the far horizon’s rufous bleed.
And this is where the folklore gets more thrilling.
As Wassily heard tell this weary troupe
Tramped home, backs plough-sore after hours of tilling.
Yet something fizzed and looped a lustful loop
Among them all and though their feet were tired
Their loins all flared like they were being fired
In Venus’s own kiln. The snoring hives
All buzzed a honeyed coda as the men
Peeled off towards the ardour of their wives-
These women, too, had sensed a heightened yen
(More fierce than what they’d all felt every day
Of late with men too weak, once home, to play).
They waited fragrantly on heated pelts
To welcome in their menfolk with caresses,
Enthusiastically unlatch their belts
And guide their rough hands up inside their dresses.
These thirteen bedrooms melted in unanimous
Assent and as the moon watched on a clamorous
Assertion of all twenty-six love-makers’
Loud satisfaction echoed from each shack
And far beyond, across the fertile acres
Of beet-field, off a Birchwood copse and back
To ring through every ear, asleep or waking,
And leave the hamlet’s nervous donkey shaking.
Refreshed and sprightly each wife felt a glowing,
Effusive thrumming through her limbs, chest, cheeks
The following day. This grew and kept on growing
In warm contentedness for several weeks,
As did the dugs that soon ballooned and bulged
From Aunt Svetlana’s blouse. Their teats divulged
Their telltale spreading stains of milky portent,
Though here their flooding augured something special.
So much did she produce that in her torment
She siphoned flowing quarts off in a vessel
Of painted earthenware with sharp, raw squeezes
And planned to start producing special cheeses.
This sign led every wife to hope, and soon,
Within the month, each one declared their state.
The men had all been thoroughly immune
To any wifely blandishment of late
Which lead each newly-pregnant future mum
To make the same conception-dating sum.
Eight months exactly passed when thirteen males
Emerged, embalmed in amniotic oil
Like glossy pickled mushrooms with pink tails
And sodden tonsures, rust-brown like the soil
Their fathers ploughed. Her back-ache soothed by shock
And wild relief Svetlana ran amok,
Her blouse slit wide, a trailing lactose stream
In her excited wake. The village goats
(All underfed) lapped madly at the cream
And nuzzled round her sodden petticoats.
She kicked them off (‘You brute! I’ll snap your neck off!
She cried at one) and flagged down doctor Chekhov,
Who, pedalling up a cloud of sandy fission
Around his creaking boneshaker, arrived,
As always, just too late for parturition.
No matter though, the babes had all survived
And suckled like keen cherubim- they slurped
In silence, pausing calmly to be burped.
The doctor danced between each natal scene
And downed a cherry schnapps each time he crossed
A happy homestead’s threshold. Towelled clean
And unpicked from their teats, the babes were tossed
Into his scrawny arms and ticklish prodding
Before he left amid much tipsy nodding.
A lightweight, bookish man, the young physician
Was soon too drunk to count from one to ten
And every schnapps just worsened his condition.
His digit count: “one...four... nope...once again,
One...two... five... um, they all looks fine to me.
Toes? Yes. All there in wriggling harmony”
His rounds completed, Aunt Svetlana led him
Towards the barn where soon he was undressed
And tucked up in a bed of hay. She’d shed him
Of cumbersome galoshes, pince-nez, vest
And with his judgement somewhat compromised
He let himself be pleasantly surprised.
Of course (you may have guessed) his numeration
Was off. The perfectly coeval eggs
Had undergone a harmless, slight mutation-
Each boy was born with seven-pronged back legs.
But love swelled like a joyous sprouting blossom
Of mutual pride throughout each parent’s bosom.
The boys all grew up handsome and courageous.
And formed a merry, youthful baker’s dozen.
The local fecund spirit was contagious,
It seemed, as soon they had another cousin
And, need for it now medically disproved,
Svetlana’s barren prefix was removed.
The years flew past, a quiet bucolic flow
Of seasons ebbed- the summers baked the tundra,
The autumns set the rowan trees aglow
Then dimmed the massive skies as weeks of thunder
Rang out like a deep coruscating bell
And winter clouds unleashed their bitter swell.
There soon appeared a certain, fey uniqueness
About the band of brothers. Not just brave,
There didn’t seem to be a single weakness
Between them. They would jovially slave
Through elements unwelcoming and grim
Their voices joined in wistful rustic hymn:
Oh there will come a time when all the snow
Has melted in the forest and the green
Of spring awakes. Then you, my dear, will go
And wander through the pine wood’s shady screen
Through needles falling down like prickly rain
And I will never see your face again!
The village farmed and harvested and flourished.
This sinewy new workforce in the fields
Increased the flow of beets and plums and nourished
The residents with record-breaking yields.
The slivovitz had never been so sweet,
Nor had the honey. Life was near-complete:
The cherry trees grew swollen with their fruit
And ringed the scene in cerasinus lustre
And pointillist green daubs of leaf and shoot
As all the youths, assisted by a cluster
Of red-faced wheezing uncles, set to hoisting
And hammering whittled beams of birch wood joisting.
Within the central square of their osada
The wives all looked on proud and passed up trays
Of naleśnik (a Polish enchilada)
And jugs of bitter lime and ice. The day’s
Last sunlight now retreated, tired, and hid
Behind a blinking, dusky clouded lid.
The deep blue lashes of the watching pines
Stirred coyly in a rustling nictitation
And there amid the gloam the ordered lines
And perfect angles of the men’s creation
Reflected as a V within a tarn-
A newly-varnished dancehall/schoolroom/ barn.
Here elders met to soothe internal drama
And settle disputes over garden borders
And children, supervised by Aunt Svetlana,
Puffed up their cheeks and blew into recorders,
(Resembling chipmunks with long plastic snouts
They salivated drizzle from their spouts).
And soon it was a fulcrum for activity,
This Dom Tańczący. Neighbours from as far
As Lutsk and Sitno came for the festivity
Each month on nights when, like a branding scar
Upon a horse’s jet black hide, the moon
Was perfectly halfway between her swoon
(When, arched, her thin back forms an opaque curve)
And gaping manic (one-eyed) grin. The fiddle
Stoked up the hall with vodka-sodden verve,
The balalaika’s trilling pyramidal
Voice-box roused wallflowers to peel away
From shy escape and join the merry fray.
In search of bison grass and honey gimlets
Across the Lipa’s drowsy, speckled waters
There came the thirteen local modest hamlets’
Unanimously favourite, sweetest daughters-
And when that autumn’s run of dances ended
For winter, each had found her own intended.
And for a year or two, such youthful bliss!
If Petrarch had crept up and caught his Laura
And offered her a fresh, audacious kiss,
And she had then reciprocated for a
Deliciously, deliriously long
Embrace, this charge would not have been as strong
As what electric joy each couple felt
Throughout their sylvan courtship. Linking hands
To form a 26-strong human belt
They jigged and span to guest-appearance bands-
A Kraków klezmer group, a Rock ’n’ Roll
Outfit (avant la lettre) from Tarnopol.
This golden age was bound to end. It did.
A decade’s joy was violently cut short
By geopolitics. The fragile lid
Was lifted with a simmering report
Of ordnance from the crucible containing
A bellicose concoction- strained and straining
It’s elements sparred, sparked and fought for dominance,
The two moustaches rose and bid the spread
Of co-opted workforces- special prominence
Was given to the young (the nearly dead
Were helped along...). And so, in hindsight’s lens
The boys were fortunate, too strong to cleanse.
The settlement changed hands, then re-changed hands,
Then once again a new force took it back.
The power du jour unwound the knotted strands
Of varied Slavic roots and had a hack
At all the ties that bound the population-
‘Divide and rule’ the obvious instruction.
(Through all ensuing strife the barn still stood,
Withstanding wayward shells and creeping flames
As if made out of Teflon-coated wood;
Once commandeered to hold those souls with names
Deemed undesirable; twice used to stash
An insurrection’s homemade weapons cache...)
The girls though. Where were they? All scattered madly-
Some stolen, some just stole away. They went
By night, in brutal haste, and fanned out sadly
From home, to Tomsk, to Terezin, Tashkent
Till soon, amid the maelstrom, they dissolved-
A human jigsaw never to be solved.
The nascent love stories were left still-born,
Forever lacked conclusive punctuation.
Their manuscripts were mercilessly torn
And burnt like acts of lost imagination.
The boys’ new narrative was grim, but traceable-
They faced (and faced up to) what was unfaceable-
As, separately, each lovelorn, septidigital
(Or, more precisely, septi-toed) young man
Was set to work and strain and heave and give it all
He had with axe or scythe or water can.
Each one grew skinny as a rusted aerial,
Collapsed, and passed out, sweating and malarial.
They all died. Saw the tunnel. Peered deep through it.
And all perceived an evanescent light.
Oh how its deep corona flared! They knew it
Was not their time. They should return to fight.
So 13 miracles pulled themselves back
And took a newly steeled, more earthly tack:
No longer scared of death, but sick of slavery,
They rapidly regained their strength and shape
And, galvanised, their fierce, uncommon bravery
Grew greater yet. They planned their great escape.
With shovels, sometimes tin and sometimes flesh,
And sharpened teeth to cut the iron mesh
That cordoned them like hens on battery farms
They used a night’s confusion, when a surge
In enemy activity meant arms
From their host power’s mechanised auberge
Were redeployed out east. Amid the fuss
They all bid do svidaniya to the Rus.
Much tunnelling and hiding out in treetops
And undersides of carriages ensued-
(Like Ulysses escaping from the Cyclops,
Though here the sheep had wheels, their bleats were crude
And petrol-scented rumblings and their guts
Were boiling rust that caused some nasty cuts).
The route they took is secret and oblique.
It took one lad, Maxim, the fastest runner,
Less than a fortnight’s high-risk hide and seek-
(You seek safe passage, hide from mine or gunner)
But Ctik travailed in ultra-cautious gear
And washed up in full drag after a year.
The bottom line is this though, they all made it,
Somehow- and how was never once discussed-
The truth was manifest and they displayed it
Outwardly as a hardened, stoic crust-
A moistened canthus or a downturned grin
Which all belied the horrors deep within.
Arrived? Yes, on the sodden shores of Kent,
The airfields of East Anglia, the toe
That dips a rocky talon in the vent
Between the Cornish coast and St. Malo.
They dried off, dusted down and caught their breath
Then, to a man, they joined the RAF.
Now Polish on their papers they all served
Divisions 302 and 303:
The fighters. English colleagues were unnerved
By how there simply didn’t seem to be
A single bead of nervous perspiration,
A single fearful judder or pulsation
In all these men. They made their swift ascent,
They honed in, found the whites of German eyes
And loosed their cannon’s bile till it was spent,
Then down they floated through the ragged sky’s
Slashed, layered sheets of crumpled azure silk
And pools of cloudy, spattered, curdled milk.
Ben Borek is the author of Donjong Heights (Eggbox, 2007), a novel in verse. The excerpt above is from a new work called Sissy.
Donjong Heights was reviewed on "Intercapillary Space" in 2007.