a quiet nest

A Quiet Nest

Andre had always wanted his own restaurant.  He knew he was a fabulous cook.  His bosses knew he was a great chef; but, they didn’t have to pay him as such.  He didn’t have his papers.  He’d had to quit college half a semester before graduation because Danya had gotten pregnant.

Andre would call his restaurant Tykyy Hnizdo: it meant ‘quiet nest’ in Ukrainian.  Not that Andre was much of a Ukrainian.  His great great grandparents had been duped into coming to the God-forsaken plains of Saskatchewan in the 1890’s.  Subsequent generations had done their best to hide their genealogy.  The language was gone, the traditions were forgotten.  However, the food had survived in Andre’s family.  Even as a small child he had cherished those hearty dishes, their distinguished Slavic names.

Andre had met Danya at the Ukrainian heritage festival in Bloor West Villiage in 1994.  He was twenty-three, in first year chef school.  Toronto life was so exciting.  Its myriad peoples all expressing their cultures made him want to discover his own. Danya was sitting at a big group table, chattering vibrantly with her girlfriends.  Andre sat down across from her with a tower of food on his plate.  The onslaught of tastes was so demanding he didn’t notice the girls tittering at him.  When he finally did notice, the lovely blond across from him pointed and joked, “You like your food?”  Her accent was so thick.

Their daughter, Pirrko, was born two years later.  As the baby grew, her tight little blond curls, her lilting giggle made everyone love her.  Most noticeably, Pirrko’s eyes were different colours.  One was an oceanic green, the other icy blue.  Andre lived to make Pirrko and Danya happy.  His desire to be a big success was fuelled by their dependence on him.

TOTAL WORD COUNT: 1, 607

So, after scrimping and saving for six years he had enough to make down payment on a restaurant.   His two uncles promised to help with the insurance, and in 2003 Tykyy Hnizdo came into being.  She was tucked away Northwest of Queen and Young, a ritzy neighbourhood.  Her menu would show the classy side of Ukrainian fare, but maintain its simple heartiness.  The week-end evenings brought in a younger crowd to hear  guest musicians – soulful young men with guitars and cute girlfriends.  Andre could be home those nights.

Everyone was pleased and excited about the Hnizdo except Danya.  Andre had always told her the savings fund was for a big vacation to the Caribbean.  She’d picked Aruba.  She had a whole scrap book of pictures and plans.  They would go in October for a whole month.   Danya gave Andre her blessing, because she knew it was his dream, but until she got her vacation she would resent the Tykyy Hnizdo.

The restaurant did very well that year, until November of 2004.  Like a mirror of the U.S., Ukrainian electorate was split between the left versus right presidential candidates.  Yanukovich won amidst roars of fraud.  Things started happening fast.  The Ukraine signed an economic pact with Russia that the E.U. and U.S. frowned upon.  The clause about military cooperation really upset the West.  Then, Al-Queda set off a dirty bomb in a small town in Texas.  The material was traced back to the Ukraine.  When President Bush pulled the U.S. right out of the United Nations he sparked a civil war.   Andre thought it was a pretty civil civil war.  Criminals inciting looting in New York during peace rallies was no excuse to institute martial law.

Everyone was looking for a scapegoat.  While targeting Arabs was popular in the U.S., it was very un-Canadian; but, Canadians had a long habit of marginalizing Ukrainians.  There were almost as many jokes about Ukrainians as there were about Newfies.  Orthodox churches were vandalized, gravestones desecrated.  Andre’s business dropped right off.  Even his Ukrainian clientele stopped coming…a culture in hiding once more.

Andre’s best friend, Michail the orthodox priest, came over for supper one night that winter.  He had brought a package of steaks for Danya and a multicolour set of play-doh for Pirrko.  Michail doted on Pirrko.  Ever since she’d saved Danya’s life he had thought she was gifted by the Holy Spirit.

“How else could she have known?”  Michail argued.  “I mean, why right then, that store?”

It had happened two years ago.  Danya and little Pirrko had gone to a beauty parlor in the morning for hair cuts.  On their walk home Danya had wanted to go into the corner store for something to drink.  There on the sidewalk across from the store, Pirrko had thrown an absolute fit, totally unlike her perennially giggling self.  As Danya tried to calm her distraught daughter there were gunshots and screams.  A hooded man ran out from the store and away.  He had killed the clerk and a woman.

While Pirrko was delighted with her present, Danya took her steaks (very dear in such a depressed economy) and absconded to the kitchen.  She disliked Michail.  As a five-year student at the Orthodox Church he loved the very institute she had been most happy to escape when her family emigrated.

Danya had taken Women Studies at Toronto U.  She wore pants (at her mother’s abhorrence) and during tutorials would detail her version of the patriarchal misogyny of   Ukrainian tradition.   Nowadays she wore skirts, as she had made peace with her femininity.  Andre thought she was fabulous.   Tonight she wore pants, for Michail.

Andre always teased Michail, “You don’t want to lead the people.  You’re an education snob.  Five years.  You’re a hopeless book worm.”

“Now that’s not true,” protested Michail, but he knew it was.

Tonight Michail was on fire.  He’d brought his own bible with him.

“Listen to this, Andre”, his eyes gleamed. “It’s from Isaiah, twenty-four,” he read, “…the curse has devoured the earth and those who dwell in it are desolate…the inhabitants of the earth are burned, and few men are left.”

Andre shrugged at him, but Michail barely noticed.

“That’s where we’re at, chum!” Michail was bouncing on the sofa, “People always think they’re it, they live in the Apocalyptic Age.  But the signs are real, there’s no doubt it’s here!”

Andre glanced uneasily at Pirrko, playing.  Michail longed for the Lord’s day of judgment.  He had nothing earthly to live for.

Michail continued to spout biblical predictions for the remainder of the evening.  Danya was truly foul by the time he left.  They had a fight that night.

“It’s so stupid!” shouted Danya in a forced whisper.  The apartment walls were thin and Pirrko slept.  “You should have known a Ukrainian diner would never succeed.”

Andre slammed his utensils on the counter and hunched his back in frustrated rage.

“Just think,” she started to cry, “We could be tanning, drinking margaritas in Aruba.”

“Oh, not this!” Andre wanted to escape.

Danya launched into berating him in Ukrainian.  He hated that.  He set up the couch and fell asleep uneasily as she cried in her mother tongue in the kitchen.

There was frost on everything the next morning.  It was early March.  Andre thought it was a trick of the frost as he walked up the street towards his Tykyy Hnizdo.  No. The stained glass windows were smashed.  The spray paint covered her homey red bricks in shades of grey and black and white.

“Go home you stinking Ukes!” it read, and, “F— Ukes and their Nukes!”  Anarchy signs were red on the pavement.

Tears in his eyes, Andre just kept walking, walking, walking.  When he finally stopped it was hours later.  His feet were wet and frozen.  A vendor sold sausages.  The smell had made him stop.  The store beside him was a travel agency.  Posters beckoned cheap get-aways.

At home, Andre dropped the tickets on the kitchen table.  He sat with his head in his arms and sobbed the hnizdo’s story to Danya.  She rubbed his back, and cried too. Andre wondered absently if she cried for joy or sorrow.  Pirrko was at school.  Andre and Danya made love all afternoon.

The next day everyone was feeling happy and excited as they stood in line at the airport.  When Andre approached the counter to check their luggage Pirrko began screaming.

It was a fit like never before.  Her mass of curls seemed to fizz and then straighten.  Danya was crying, pleading with her.  Pirrko’s eyes flew in different directions.

“No Airplane Papa NO NO…”Andre and Danya looked in each other’s eyes.  Danya wasn’t really crying anymore.  They both knew that they were thinking the same thing.  It was just like before.

Danya was quiet at home that week-end.  Pirrko was fine, back to normal.  Andre was comatose, sleeping and eating only.  Andre and Danya watched the news at night together.  It happened on Sunday.  A class five hurricane, freakish because they usually came in September, flashed over the Antilles and smashed down upon Venezuela.  Aruba was leveled.  Hundreds were killed.

A lot of thoughts went through Andre’s mind the next day as he tentatively went over his Tykyy Hnizdo.  Five days of closure, the graffiti still on sidewalk, had led to more vandalism.  Windows were smashed, rotten food and rocks thrown through the openings.

What would they do?  They could pull up and move to the Ukrain.  No.  Danya would never do that to Pirrko.  They could try again, maybe Cuba, just stay there, forever.  He could go back to cooking for others.  On his grave they could write, ‘failure’.  A glint of sun shone through the smashed window lighting up a bit of stained glass clinging to the top frame.  A shard of green and a shard of blue.  Like little jewels hanging from a necklace.  They would stay.  They would tough it out.  Life held promise, and so he prayed.

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