Posted By Smple Staff

Vignettes from Kyiv

*This article was featured in Smple Magazine 03/2021

1. The Butterflies

It was morning, and I was talking on the phone when the butterfly flew in. It was orange and brown. I watched as it thrashed about the window. Its wings made soft thumping sounds against the glass. I ended the call and released it.

The next day I was walking to work, pressed to a low hedge. A wave of butterflies zigzagged through the air. As I walked down the street, each step caused a fresh wave. 

In the square ahead of me I could see the three private security guards who always patrolled the place. They all held their hands close to their weapons, and swivelled blank faces here and there. I wanted to laugh at them as the butterflies spun about my head.

I looked at the sky, lifted beyond the high, tight apartments that had stood empty for months, waiting for life. I had begun to suspect that such people did not exist. Suddenly, looking down, I saw the buildings as a shell, a facsimile. Their glassy exteriors flashed dully in the sun like wax.

When I got to work I looked up the breed of the butterfly. Tortoiseshell. My neighbourhood, green and secluded, was the perfect home. Every spring, small pockets of Kyiv are overwhelmed with hatchlings.

I also came across this word:

Kell. (Noun).

  1. (obsolete, figuratively) That which covers or envelopes like a caul; a net; a fold; a film.

  2. (obsolete) The cocoon or chrysalis of an insect.

  3. A kiln.

It seemed a shame that such a word had fallen out of use and I turned it over and over in my mind for the rest of the day.

2. The Tree

It was late spring and the city was warming. Smears of vegetation were covered in a fine patina of dust, giving everything a bleached-out quality, like an overexposed photo.

I went out early and sweated in the sun for hours. On returning home, I washed my face with cold water, keen to scrub the day from my skin.

As I bent over the sink, something came away in my hands.

I stared at my palms in the half-dark of my windowless bathroom.

It felt like wet down - like the smallest, softest feathers. I rubbed my hands together, staring at the salty fibres that had clung to my fingertips.

Eventually, I realised I was looking at the seeds of the black poplar tree.

These trees are everywhere in Kyiv. They stand about eight stories high and dwarf many flat blocks. Because their branches grow parallel to their trunks, they leave the barest footprint and manage to grow in the smallest of spaces.

There was even a cluster of them growing past my flat’s balcony on the fourth floor, and I liked to lean out and stare at them occasionally.

When I first arrived in Kyiv, I studied them with interest, quickly realising they were not found in England. Apart from their size and thinness, I thought they were unremarkable.

That was until one morning, when I woke up to see white fluff drifting through my bedroom window. My first thoughts were a confused blur of ash and snow.

I stood and I watched as hundreds, if not thousands, of white specks floated by in the breezeless heat.

Soon, great swathes of fluff began to mount on the roadside.

There was something decadent about the pure white patches as they spread on the dry, cracked ground.

If I squinted my eyes it looked almost like a fungus; like the city was made of slowly deteriorating matter.

Walking down the road, things became even more surreal. I saw a sap-weeping tree lose its texture amongst the falling seeds. Black bark, grey leaves, and that fluff, which stuck to the trunk like dirt to a wound.

One day I asked my friend about the trees, half-afraid she’d laugh at my curiosity. After all, the trees were just trees to her, right?

Instead, she laughed and told me they’d been planted after the Second World War because they were believed to purify the air. Unfortunately, they don’t.

Black poplars are dioecious, meaning that each plant is either ‘male’ or ‘female’.

For some unknown reason, nearly every black poplar in Kyiv was female. A single female tree can produce millions of seeds every year.

Far from cleaning the air, the seeds play havoc with people’s sinuses.

When I asked my friend why such a mistake had been made, she shrugged and just said, “it was probably corruption”.

This was strange, but over the next few weeks, I realised such stories were commonplace in Ukraine.

Only a few days later, I listened bemusedly to my colleagues talk about the city’s plans to tear down all of the chestnut trees in Kyiv, just so they could be replaced by a slightly different chestnut tree. The reason? Probably corruption again, they said.

The Queen of Hearts, painting the roses red.

3. The Rose

I began to ask random people about their favourite Ukranian myths and legends, expecting to hear their ‘The Faerie Queene’ or St. George and the Dragon. Several times, I was met with blank stares.

So I began to collect my own fables about Ukraine.

One night I went to a friend’s flat and listened to a man sing about a rose growing out of cow shit. The shit was Ukraine, and the rose was the singer. He sang about feeling more beautiful in the company of ugliness. It was a funny song, made even more entertaining by the whispered translation in my ear, my laughter coming a few seconds after everyone else’s.

On a long stroll around the city, a friend gave me a line from the Ukranian national anthem: “we’re not dead yet." The translation was off, but at the time I grasped at this note, determined to file it under the space in my mind reserved for ‘national character’.

“I’ve brought you here to show you something,” said my friend.

“Really?” I was a little nervous.

We were walking down Lavrska Street, towards the Holodomor Monument, a white obelisk-shaped statue commemorating deaths from the Great Famine. I was scared to bring this up to my Ukranian friends, a piece of their history wearing a black cape.

But instead of gesturing towards the sculpture, my friend stopped in front of a large building set back from the road. It had a grim, nondescript façade. We walked towards it and I noticed an empty fountain drained for the winter, slightly forlorn, with a cheerful mosaic at the bottom

The subject looked vaguely celestial - a red crab swirled in one corner, while a pair of scales floated in the middle. I idly wondered if it had been made during the Soviet era.

My friend explained the building used to be called a Pioneers Palace. She told me about how the Young Pioneers (Soviet Scouts, basically) were instructed to always be ready to fight for the communist party. Being a Pioneer was an integral part of many children during the Soviet Era.

I stared at the Pioneers Palace. It could have been used for anything – offices, a swimming pool, a theatre. Its new name, Kyiv Palace of Children and Youth, also didn’t give much away.

“What is it used for now?” I asked my friend.

“Oh, you can go and learn circus skills there,” she replied.

“What, like a clown academy?” 

She pulled out her phone. We took some photographs together with the mosaic in the background.

4. The Crow

There was something very human about the way the bird tipped its head to the side.

It was large and black, with a collar of grey feathers that swooped down over its belly and through to the base of its tail.

As I watched, it began to hop. Each foot came down heavily in a haphazard manner which gave it an endearing, loping gait. Sometimes it would hop too high and throw out its wings to correct its descent. It looked like it was perpetually about to fly, but couldn’t decide.

I was strolling in a park with a friend. The grass was yellow and crunched underfoot. The heat of Kyiv, which had come so suddenly, even made walking uncomfortable.

I pointed out the crow to my friend and she told me a story.

“When I was younger my cousin was on holiday and he was staying in a holiday home near the Crimea. He was with friends and they were all drinking. The next day he woke up with an awful hangover and the crows were making a racket.”

The crow nearby helpfully cawed at that moment.

“He tried to go back to sleep but the crows were too loud. He gave up and got up, but at dinner that night they sat on the patio, the crows were curious. They kept drawing closer, on the roof, on the railing of the balcony. More and more gathered. He and his friends threw rocks to scare them off. Ever since, wherever my cousin goes, the crows don’t like him.”

“What do you mean? He became infamous amongst the crows? They told each other about him?” I said.

She laughed. “Yeah. Something like that.” She glanced at the crow again. “I don’t really like them”. She paused, “Wherever he goes, if there is a crow, they end up fighting.”

I glanced at the crow and tried to hide my admiration. It did look mischievous enough to hold a vendetta.

“Maybe he’s just bad with animals,” I said.

We continued our walk around the park.

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