Forgive me if I offended you...

    Bukovina rustled as it spread over the hills

    The girl cried as she gave herself away

At the foot of the rusty iron bridge, not the old stone bridge built by Italian hostages of the Austro-Hungarian Empire during the First World War or the newer iron bridge just before town, but the first one on the right as you get into town, just before the pharmacy (with the neon green cross)— a guy in a green camo jacket with a black dog is waiting for us, as instructed.

“His name is Black,” he says, “and I’m Mykola.” He stretches out his hand, which has several deep tooth mark scabs just about the thumb. His hand is coarse and stiff, feels like unsanded wood. Our inn-keeper paid Mykola to take us on a hike up to the top of the hump—the Hutsuls (Carpathian highlanders) call them humps, not mountains. He turns and we start walking the same walk he walks every day to and from his house three humps over.

“Look— they’re driving the forrest away,” he says, pointing to a flatbed loaded down with logs. He’s a take-only-what-you-need kind of guy, explains with modest resentment that cutting is not controlled in the Carpathians.

“One tree can suck up a lot of water— 100 litres.” He holds his index finger up, revealing another crusty scab from a bite. “Think about that. They cut and cut and then come Spring, the run-off drowns the villages in the valley.”

Black barks at a horse-drawn carriage carrying blanketed tourists. The driver says “Glory to Jesus Christ,” as they pass, tipping his calf-skin hat; Mykola responds, “Glory Forever.” 

    Don’t rustle, Bukovina, don’t spread over the hills    

   Don’t cry, girl, when you give yourself away

“Take a stick and walk like a goose,” advises Mykola, hauling on his fourth cigarette since we started our ascent. The hill is particularly steep and my boots have no tread— they’re city boots, made for salted sidewalks, not snowy mountain trails. He shows me how with an ease that makes it seem like his cheap galoshes are treaded with steel spikes.

At the top of the second hump is Five-Houses, a cluster of dilapidated wooden houses, home to eight inhabitants. Above the village, a soviet chair lift that hasn’t been operational for 30 years.

“Years ago, there was a problem with a bear here. The villagers would send out their cattle and goats to graze in the field under that cliff and the bear would come and tear them apart.” He swipes the icy air with his mitt-less paw.

“So what’d they do— shoot him?” I assume.

“No one could hit him. So they made a trap— dug a trench, filled it with sharpened stakes, covered it with a calf skin. The bear came, dove at the skin, fell in the trench. Done.”

“Did you see it?”

“No. I just heard about it,” he turns and keeps walking. “I live further— at the next hump.”

We pass an iron cross at the edge of the town before crossing into the next valley. I ask what it is just to catch my breath.

“A guy died here while fixing the lift,” he says without slowing down. “He got electrocuted. They put up a cross.” The cross is wrapped with steel cable.

“Did you know him?” I ask as we cut through the eastern-most yard in the village.

“No. I just heard about it.” Above his head, a delicate cluster of icicles dangle from a wooden bench that has been casting serrated shadows over the yard for the past 30 years.

    On the hillside—cattle, in the valley—sheep

    Kind shepherd— what troubles you?

Mykola lives in the office of a mixed martial arts camp named after Oleksa Dovbush— the Hutsul Robin Hood. Two weeks a year, it is home to about forty kids from across western Ukraine who come to learn to free fight and to survive in the woods. Along the right side of his house— fire wood piled up almost to the roof and a neglected wash basin of blue cracked plastic filled with ice and snow. Along the left side— a large canvas poster outlining the THEORY OF FREE FIGHT. Rule 1: In free fight there is no retreating/stepping back— only to the side.

In the window, two plaster hands cut clean at the wrist. One is making a fist and the other a peace sign. In between them, a lantern with a waxless tea light, a round stone painted like a yellow ladybug, and a potato.

“Come have some tea,” he gestures and we squeeze into a thin corridor where he ladles luke warm tea from a pot on an electric burner into a single mug we pass around. The mug reads GET ANGRY, GET INVOLVED, GET ANSWERS.

The pull-out couch is made with an unzipped sleeping bag, flannel side out. It’s covered in breadcrumbs and a few stray summer camp accessories including a wooden training sword, a badminton birdie, and a warped frisbee that has the same teeth marks Mykola has on his hand. Above the bed are three posters: a free fight advertisement from 2012— some guy vs. Mykola;

a hand-drawn map of Ukraine with multi-coloured hand prints, titled UNBREAKABLE; and a cartoon of short-skirted nurse hugging a massive dripping syringe that reads FIRST AID: COME IN— DON’T BE AFRAID, LEAVE— DON’T CRY.

When we leave, we thank him for the tea and for showing us around the camp. As per the Hutsul tradition, he thanks us for coming and asks for forgiveness for his shortcomings as a host.

“No, thank you for coming to visit,” he says as he bows to us. “You remember how to get back, right? Just follow the chair lift all the way down. Go with God. Forgive me if I offended you, if my hospitality wasn’t ideal, if something wasn’t right…”

    Girls walk the hills and love boys

    But she, she just looks

Just off the main strip in Vorokhta, a blacksmith sits in an open shack heating metal beside a massive anvil. He hears us approach the shack, though he can’t see us because it’s dark. We can barely see him, too, but hear a clanging of metal as he bends over and picks up something long and heavy.

“Who’s there?” he slurs into the night, tapping the iron rod against the concrete a couple of times. “Come closer so I can see you.”

“We were just walking by,” Stanislav answers. “We heard you working, wanted to know if you could make us an axe.”

“What’s your surname?” he barks and almost falls over. “You look like a Mongolian.” Stanislav is wearing a lama wool sweater with a pointy hood and sports dreads down to his coat collar.

“Kovalenko.”

“O! That’s a name!” It means son of a blacksmith in Ukrainian. “Maybe you’re mine!” his laugh quickly turns into a cough that again nearly knocks him over. “What’s yours?”

“Firsov,” says Vadym, our friend from St. Petersburg, snickering at how drunk the blacksmith is.

“What?” The blacksmith leans in.

“Firsov.” He straightens up, conscious about not insinuating disrespect.

“What?” He leans in closer.

“Firsov.”

“Firsov? What kind of a name is that? I can barely even pronounce it… Ok. Fine. And what’s your name?”

“Vadym.”

“Vadym, Vadym— he died… and fuck him!” We all start laughing at his ridiculous rhyme. “What about you?”

“Stanislav.”

“O! That’s a name! A good Ukrainian name,” he states proudly. “How come you look like a Mongolian?”

“We’re looking for a good Ukrainian axe,” Vadym interrupts him. “Do you have any?”

“An axe? What do you need an axe for?”

“Do you have any?”

“Nah.” He kicks around some steel tubes. “I have lots of gun barrels though.” He picks one up, examines it, then points it at Vadym. “But I won’t sell em to YOU!” He laughs until he coughs once again.

“We don’t need gun barrels. We need an axe. Can you make us an axe?”

“Yep. I can make anything. Come back next week.”

“We’re leaving tomorrow,” Stanislav explains.

“Good!”

“So can you make it?”

“No. Come back next year.”

“Ok,” says Vadym. “Let’s go, Stan— he’s too drunk to make anything right now.”

“Hey what’s that on your wrist?” asks the blacksmith, pointing to a yellow fabric bracelet on Stanislav’s hand. “You sick or something?” He thinks it’s a hospital registration band.

“No,” says Stan, not making the connection. “I’m fine.”

The blacksmith grabs Stanislav’s hand, pulls out a 6-inch knife hidden in his belt, cuts the bracelet off before Stan has a chance to react and throws it in the fire.

“There. That’ll give you peace. Go with God. Forgive me if I offended you, if my hospitality wasn’t ideal, if something wasn’t right…”

    Yes, I just look

    And already my husband asks what I said to you

“Can I put a log in the fire?” asks Yehor, preemptively leaving his glow in the dark science experiment for the pile of wood beside the fireplace. 

“Yes, but be careful,” says Marichka, worried more that his six-year-old hands will drop a heavy log on one of his bare six-year-old feet than she is that he might burn himself while trying to get it into place. The two were so preoccupied with their fluorescent gelatine solution that they let the fire burn down to the embers.

The door of the cabin opens and an unfamiliar old man walks in with a certainty that makes it seem like he thinks he lives here.

“Can I help you?” asks Marichka, as Yehor pushes the biggest log he could find into the fireplace.

“I’m here on business. I’m work for the cops.” He doesn’t look like a cop. He looks like a old villager whose had too much to drink.

“Are you looking for someone?” Marichka opts for patience instead of obstinacy. 

“I’m maintaining order.”  He starts looking around, peeks through an open door into a bedroom with two single unmade beds. “Everyone knows me here. Everyone.” 

starts to looking in the kids room. yehor doesn’t do anything— he’s more afraid of the dog PUTIN than of a some old man.

“That’s our kids’ room,” says Marichka, starting to get annoyed. She has one eye on Yehor, who is blowing fiercely at the log that isn’t lighting. Yehor doesn’t pay any attention to the man— he’s more afraid of the inn-keeper’s black shepherd than drunk strangers. “You won’t find anything in there.”

“Give me some water,” he suddenly asks.

Marichka ignores his question, retorts with her own. “Give me a lighter— a need to get the fire going.”

 “I don’t have any water.” there’s a bottle of vodka on the table, a gift from our friend down the road.

“How do you know I have a lighter,” says the man, twisting his face in disbelief as if she’s guessed the colour of his underwear.

“I know everything,” she replies, contorting her face and fanning away his breath with her hand as to not sound flirtatious. He smells of booze and cigarettes.

He notices an open bottle of vodka on the table. “Pour me a drink. It’s New Years. Let’s celebrate.” He doesn’t give her the lighter.

“Ok. I’ll pour you a drink and then— you leave. Right away.” She picks up a dirty clay teacup from the coffee table— an old chest with a heavy iron lock and hinges— and goes into the bathroom to wash it.

“My wife won’t even pour me a drink,” he says as she rinses the cup. When Marichka comes out of the bathroom, he’s sitting on the couch. Yehor has given up on the fire and is looking through his science kit for plastic insect-shaped casts for his experiment.

“I see people,” he says. “I see that you’re very strong. You’re a very strong woman.”

“I know.” She puts the cup down on the table, pours a shot. “To your wife. Drink up and go home to her.”

“And you have tits.”

“I know I have tits,” She says firmly, trying to conceal the quiver building in her throat. In the corner of her eye, Yehor is pouring fluorescent goop into an oversized cockroach mould.

“And your legs are nice.”

“You better leave.” She stretches her neck towards the window as if she sees someone coming. “My husband’s coming back and he will be very angry to find you here.”

The old man takes a small sip, puts the cup back down on the chest.

“Drink up and leave now,” says Marichka forcefully. “You’re starting to scare my child.” Yehor is not paying attention— he’s rifling through the science kit again, looking for a misplaced mould.

The old man takes Marichka’s knife out of his pocket. He must have taken it from the table when she went into the washroom, she guesses. He flips open the blade and looks at it.

“Mom,” says Yehor, not looking up from the box.

“That’s my husband’s knife,” says Marichka, who is so focussed on the man’s hands that she might not have heard her son. They are coarse, darkened by dirk, and have dotted crescent scars that Marichka’s imagination are telling her betray human teeth. 

“Mom.” The rifling is becoming more vigorous.

“If saw you took that knife he would fucking kill you.”

He closes the blade. “Here.”

“Mom!”

“I wanted to take this, but I’m giving it back. See how good I am?”  He holds it out to Marichka, who reaches out and grabs it. “You should hide the knife. Or there will be misfortune in this house.”

“Leave now.”

“Mom! Mom! Mom!”

“Ok, ok. Go with God. Forgive me if I offended you, if my hospitality wasn’t ideal, if something wasn’t right…” The old man takes a last look at Marichka’s chest and leaves, closing the door behind him.

“Mom! Mom! Mom! Mom! Mom! Mo…”

“What!?”

“I can’t find the tarantula mould. Do you know where it is?”

“No, son. I don’t know where it is.” She looks out the window, watches the old man zig-zag across the parking lot to a restaurant called “Daughters,” sits down beside the door and orders a bowl of soup.

    So better go back inside, man, I didn’t say anything

    I just looked at him, and he at me