Vera’s garden started at the cement steps from the back of her fibro house and stopped at the splintered wooden palings that separated her from the Dobrowskis over the back fence and toward Wollongong Beach.
Between the steps and the fence, the garden was always full and in different stages: vegetables planted, vegetables just picked in burlap bags, or seeds or stems of vegetables about to be planted. But for the muddy wooden planks between the different garden beds, every centimetre was host to harvest.
The raised beds were built from heavy railway sleepers that Vera’s late husband, Oleksa, or Al as the Aussies called him, had hauled home on the workers’ train from the BHP steel mill. Half the houses in the suburb – their’s included – were built with scrap materials and left-overs from the mill, which was gargantuan and blocked the small city from the sea with their size and smoke. Only a kilometre from the shadows of the steel works, Vera’s beds were heaped high with brown soil and moist cow manure from a dairy farm near Kiama. ‘Chocolate velvet cake’, her lawyer granddaughter had once described the planting fill as, but that’s as close as she ever came to it, Vera noticed.
The beds were placed in four neat rows, like church pews. That was easy for any visitor, say Signora Romero, the retired Italian school cleaner from next door on the right, to see.
One row of three beds of what she called “leafy” in her thick accent: broccoli, parsley, spinach, silver beet, dill, parsley and their like. Green veggies to trim off stems.
The next row were three beds of “fruity”: zucchini, eggplant, green beans, tomatoes, chokos. Palmfuls of produce to clip off vines.
Then, three beds of “rooty”: potatoes, parsnips, beetroot, onion, radish, garlic. Dense packets to be pulled from the soil.
And, three beds of “sweety”: berries and grapes. Sweet pearls picked off strings.
It’s always easy to see the “what” of the garden, but there was another pattern that only Vera could see. Not even the most intelligent person she knew, Father Andriy from the church who regularly came to sprinkle the house and the garden with holy water from a plastic Coke bottle, could see it. What Vera saw that she didn’t share was her garden’s “why”.
Each set of beds was for a season, the distinct one’s she remembered from her Ukrainian childhood. Within that, each individual bed – all twelve – was for a lunar moon. From Aquarius to Taurus to Virgo to Scorpio and the others as well. And, each bed’s content was planted, tended and harvested by the moon’s position.
The first two weeks of the month were the new moon’s and its strong energy; a fertile time for planting as it was when the plants opened and reached for the light. With the third week of the month, the moon’s light would be weaker and the plants’ energy would be transferring to their roots. So, it was time for Vera to sow. In the fourth week, the moon’s light was weakest; in this time of relative barrenness, Vera would cultivate, rip weeds, turn compost with her shiny spade, and kill bugs.
Truth be told, if someone observed Vera very closely, say the lawyer granddaughter who would drive her Mercedes down from Vaucluse to visit on weekends and diligently copy recipes from Vera’s old composition notebook into her Blackberry, well, they might even have seen that pattern. But what Vera really didn’t share was the “why” behind the “why”.
As a small girl in the creek-side village of houses with whitewashed walls and thatched hay roofs, and side yards of languid cows and curious chickens, on a ceaseless steppe of golden wheat and barley, Vera’s mother, Sofia, had taught her to plant by the moon. An ancestral system of matching the sky and the soil to seeds and time.
Sofia compared it to embroidering a blouse, and how each tiny stitch of needle and dyed red or black thread needed to perfectly follow the pattern to make the dense and beautiful whole. So, it was with planting. The “what’s, when’s and how’s” of a garden came from a higher source that needed to be adhered to and respected.
Dark-haired and dark eyed, it was said her mother had gypsy blood, perhaps from the times of the Cossack wars with the Turks across the Black Sea. The truth was unknown, but the villagers chose to believe her blood was exotic and capable of sorcery. Before the Soviets, the other women would come to their house late at night after bringing their animals into their summer kitchens. Wearing the black shawl of a young widow, Sofia would read the yellow Tarot cards, a prized possession imported from Vienna, for them. Vera sat in a dark corner, the walls lined with maroon Persian rugs, and listened to her mother speak about the Hermit, the Lovers, the Magician, the Fool, the Devil… And Vera heard how the village women also sought out their own sense in the cards – no matter what Sofia might have offered.
Everyone knew that the Lovers were strapping Ivan and blossoming Natalka, whose blouse barely contained her bosom, who they followed with their eyes as they took wooden pails to fill with water. The village’s external voices scolded their indiscretion, but it’s internal hearts sang at the sight, as young love was a sign of hope and abundance.
And the Magician, well, that was Pavlo, the bespectacled young Communist teacher sent from Kyiv after the Revolution, who taught an inaugural generation of village children to read, but also told them to forget God. Or, at least to pretend to forget God. On Sundays, after the church was boarded over and shut, Pavlo sometimes joined the village’s farmers in the forest by the creek bank. There, Fat Dmytro, who had shaved off his bushy grey beard and no longer wore his priestly vestments, held hidden Liturgy that everyone knew about. The fragrant smoke of frankincense from his swinging censer swirled up amongst the black-and-white birch trees called ‘bereza’.
They were all dead now. Vera remembered Ivan drifting off in his sleep, as Sofia nursed him and Natalka weakly wept into her flower-patterned headscarf. As a young girl, Vera was not to know that Natalka cried not from grief at her fiancé’s death by starvation, but from her guilt for having eaten the last of their food.
Vera remembered finding the dead body of Danylo. Sent by Sofia to forage in the forest for food after the Bolshevik brigades had confiscated the grain stored in their cellar, she found his body hanging by his own leather belt from a pine bough. After months of famine, he was no longer fat, and his hemp shirt was loose around his purple corpse. Beneath him, there were no mushrooms among the pillowy pine needles where they usually could be found.
Back in town, Vera saw a handwritten notice scrawled on hammer-and-sickle letterhead that was nailed to the bulletin board of the post office, still pock-marked from the time of the Great War. It was signed by the young Russian lieutenant who came to head the Central Committee of the newly formed Town Soviet. It said Dmytro had been convicted of crimes against the peasantry and the proletariat as a ‘secret priest and bourgeoise kulak’. It made no sense to Vera because it was no secret he was a priest and his little farm had only three more pigs than their own. Sofia told her that not everything made sense at first, but there was more to see than what was seen.
Seventy years later, the people of her village weren’t to be seen now, but they were still there for Vera. Everyone from the village who had died in the famine. Ivan and Natalka lived among the raspberries in her garden. Red, bouncing, full of life, dancing at the wedding they never had. Fat Dmytro with the eggplants. Sombre, serious, plump and with a priestly collar.
Even Pavlo, who betrayed the last underground store of potatoes to the Bolshevik patrol, he was there too. Shot by the zit-faced lieutenant, drunk and in muddy boots. It was because Pavlo had not disclosed the village’s secret as quickly as a good comrade was supposed to. Now, Pavlo was among the onions – vegetables that Vera thought untrustworthy because they could give her nightmares. But she forgave them because they also brought sweetness to her red beetroot borscht.
And Sofia, who had died on the cart taking them to Kyiv where she hoped to find them food and safety, was there too. She was with the sunflowers that lined the fence line on all three sides. Strong, tall, vivid, nourishing. Even now, seventy years later in a land as far away from hunger and war as one could flee, Vera remembered holding onto her mother’s thinned body as it swayed to the pull of the farm horses and jolted on the rough track. A pointy elbow pushed in Vera’s emaciated ribcage. At the orphanage, the nuns, who by Communist decree were no longer nuns, pried her off her mother’s corpse.
This Australian winter’s morning, with the light as pure as a prayer to Saint Mary, Vera took down three burlap bags from a shelf in the small tin storage shed, and started to forage in the beds for content. She filled one bag for the Dombrovski’s, who especially liked her capsicums and eggplants to make their Macedonian ayvar spread. They would slather it on sausages, salads and fresh bread – the spicy red binding of their lives. Maybe, Vera prayed, it would help Damyan, their 20 year old son, stop with the drugs and the Holden muscle cars, and follow his father into the mill. That’s what she told her neighbour.
‘Speed. Very bad. Shame for family. No talk with his father,’ Gospogica Dombrowski said when taking the filled-up bag from across the fence.
‘When he last home, sosedka?’ asked Vera, using the word that Macedonian and Ukrainian shared, but for a vowel, for neighbour.
Most people were very alike in their needs, Vera thought. Only a vowel or two, or an old fence, separated them. Food, family, faith.
‘Three nights ago, when father on shift. But he call this morning to say he is okay and trying to play soccer with Rockdale Macedonian club. Maybe, change,’ Gospogica Dombrowski, who Vera knew took Valium, said.
‘That is very good, sosedko! Very healthy. He is great sportsman when he try. And he try!’
‘Bozha volya. God villing. You have nice day, Vera. I stop vorrying and go make the ayvar with these beautiful veggie.’
Next Vera made up another bag for Signora Romero, whose husband had died in when a crane fell on him at the mill and whose daughters were busy up in Sydney where they’d married Five Dock builder brothers. Tomatoes, onions, garlic, parsley, oregano, marjoram – and all the things that made for passata to smother noodles in. She put in the onions and garlic first and then made a soft green bed on top of them with the herbs. Finally, she carefully laid the tomatoes on the top layer – like putting jewels on jewellery, she imagined – so they wouldn’t bruise even in the 10 metre trip to the Romero’s veranda next door.
‘You tomato, Vera, the best of the best. Il migliore! I make sauce bottles for you and my girls,’ Mrs Romero said on taking delivery at her front door.
Vera always like to look at the patterns of seashells gathered from the beach that the late Mr Romero had laid into the veranda’s concrete to make it special for his wife.
Mrs Romero caught her eye, and said: ‘I think sometimes Antonio he made the shells for you too, mi amica. Or, for Al, your husband. Those two love each other so much. Aussie mates! Dio riposi.’
‘The card games in summer under your carport. Our game: durak. The fool. Your game: scopa. The broom! We say mitla. We happy,’ Vera, who knew her neighbour watched The Bold and the Beautiful on TV every day for some company, said.
‘Yes, happy. I need to look at photo albums more and remember. The girls when little. I do that today, mi amica. Grazie,’ Mrs Romero said and closed the aluminium screen door.
Vera headed back to the shed and noticed her grapes needed some more winter pruning with the secateurs whose brass handle was polished to a shine from her decades-long use. She then filled up the third bag. This one was to make borscht: potatoes, turnips, celery, carrots and especially beets.
Big dome-like beets whose shape reminded her of the dome her husband and the other men of the parish had made on the roof of their church from BHP excess sheet metal. They’d bought the church from a dwindling parish of Baptists in the 50s, and converted it and renovated it. At Easter, they would stand around their proud structure in a circle with wicker baskets of batik eggs and garlic sausages to be blessed. Now, many years of sea spray and salt had caused concentric circles of rust to bloom from the welded bolts that held the dome together.
It reminded Vera of the very rare ‘blood stain’ embroidery patterns she’d learnt from her mother. Using only red thread stitches to create an image on the blouse like that of a wound spilling from Jesus’ wounds. Her lawyer granddaughter had asked to learn how to do that stitching, but they hadn’t found time yet. Vera worried that she did more for others than for the girl, but wanted she wanted was of the past and the past had dangerous borders. Still. And, there was always the garden – there was always the filling of the bags and the feeding of the people.
When Father Andriy came past later in the day to Vera’s house to pick up his own bag, she expected he would repeat their usual conversation. That there was talk that the new Bishop in Melbourne was going to close the Wollongong church for lack of parishioners. That the generation that came in the 50s and 60s for the mill and would stand for two-hour long Liturgies in Ukrainian in Australian summer heat was gone. That their adult children had moved away from the ‘Gong, no longer spoke the language or understood the Liturgy, and only came at holidays and family funerals to check out each other’s new cars. Vera would always listen as if it was the first time he was sharing this, and then later pray for Father Andriy to have patience.
After the bag was prepared and waiting in the shade on the back steps, Vera did her big midday water of the garden using the blue-and-yellow latex hose that her lawyer granddaughter had brought her a month ago. It was very long and very flexible, and didn’t kink and catch the way her old rubber hoses always had. She was still getting used to how easy it was with the new hose that didn’t get caught every few metres, block off the water and force her to untangle to get working again.
Which part of her had liked. When something wasn’t simple; when it needed to be worked at; when suffering was accepted. But, it was also important, she knew, to count blessings and recognises the small things. The little points in life where the profane can see the profound, like her lawyer granddaughter’s gracious gift in the colours of the homeland. A homeland that Vera had not been to since being rounded up, transported and then forced to make battleship propellers as a slave labourer in a German BMW plant during World War II. Her granddaughter had been – something to do with charity for kids from Chernobyl – but it was hard for Vera to listen. It seemed sad.
Blessing and gifts, she thought to herself as she watered and blocked out the bad times. For each bed and each planting, the gift of water was a little different too. Some needed to be misted. Some soaked at the roots. Some sparingly treated and some nearly drowned. Like people, they too all needed their food, but also had their preferences. Just like her neighbours and dozens of other people and institutions across Wollongong – like the Salvation Army soup kitchen for the homeless – to whom she regularly gave bags of food from her garden to. For more than twenty years since Al’s passing, what Vera didn’t eat went for free from her garden to the Gong’s kitchens.
As she finished off the watering, her front door knocked and she knew it would be Father Andriy. Vera opened both the screen door and the timber door to the priest. He was dressed in what he called his ‘civilian clothes’ – a short sleeved white shirt tucked into loose polyester black slacks sooty with incense dust, and a pair of old Volley’s – which weren’t very different from his vestments, but for priestly collar and polished leather shoes. He was skinny and his arms were raked red from scratching at his eczema. He laughed at himself for it. On his Facebook account with old seminary friends, he called himself the ‘white crow’ which meant ‘black sheep’ in Ukrainian. He needed his humour to face a church of empty pews and the doubts of the Eparchy.
‘Slava Isusu Khyrstu, pani Vera,’ the priest offered.
‘Slava Naviky and good day, Father. I knew it would be you. Come through to the garden.’
‘Dyakuyu, pani Vera. I very much appreciate your kindness and never quite know how to return it. You remember the saying: borrowed bread lays heavy on the stomach.’
‘Your prayers are all we need, Father. You have God’s ear and that’s worth more than a full wheat field.’
‘Still, it is very good of you. What you do, pani Vera, for everyone. With the food from the garden.’
‘It’s not me that does it, Father Andriy. It’s the earth, the sun, the water and the gifts we’ve been given that does it.’
‘Indeed, pani Vera,’ said the priest, as he took a leaf from a beet root plant in one of the beds in his hand. ‘I was just sharing your story with a young lady. From the Council. Melissa.’
‘The Council, Father? From the government?’ asked Vera and stepped inside the shed where the priest’s bag was waiting.
‘Yes, well, the government. Just here in Wollongong. Roads, rubbish, rates – and now celebrating citizens. Social cohesion, they call it. But for me it’s just saying thank you to people – like you, pani Vera – who do much for others.’
In the shadows of the shed, Vera took another turnip from the high wooden potting table and put it into the priest’s bag. She tied it up with red twine string. She held onto the bow’s ends in her old hands and breathed of the soil smell in the shed. She reminded herself that Father Andriy was the smartest person she knew.
Vera heard the priest say that Melissa might ‘drop in to talk’. Vera closed her eyes and said a few rapid Hail Mary’s, and then took the bag out to the priest.
‘Any word from the Bishop, Father?’ she asked and heard the priest start his normal speech about the cost of building maintenance versus the revenue from alms, and how there were different ways to count either. Today, for Vera, it was comforting as the sound of birds.
After the priest left, the bag over his shoulder as he headed toward his black Corolla with a plastic rosary hanging from the rear view mirror, Vera walked around to the side of the house. It took most of the afternoon sun from the south. Vera grew her ‘secret’ poppies there – separate from the garden. A 20 metre long strip of happy red faces like young girls dancing. Her lawyer granddaughter had told her they were best here and a bit hidden away because the authorities didn’t like them. ‘I need to call her, I need to call her’, she thought, but other things rushed up, as she sat down in an old chair whose wicker strands were worn and saggy.
Vera didn’t understand how governments did not like a flower. She didn’t understand how governments took people’s last food away or fired Katyusha rockets at undefended wartime villages. Vera didn’t understand how a red flag made it okay to kill.
After a few minutes, Vera closed her eyes and fell asleep. As soundly as in the poppy fields of the village. She would wake when the sun faded and the evening cold gripped her hands, and make a simple dinner of potato soup with dill.
Vera’s husband had hated mosquitoes, so the next morning she stood and looked at Melissa through a grey mesh screen. It muted the young woman’s the tattoo of green and pink mermaids and dolphins that ran down Melissa’s arm to the mobile phone in her palm. It seemed to be flashing with some message. Vera looked at it and remembered lighting candles under the icons in their village kitchen which had no electricity or running water.
‘Is it okay to come in, to talk?’
Vera opened the screen and stepped out on to the veranda. She noticed that Oleksa’s tiles were coming loose under her slippers.
Melissa thanked her and, as far as Vera could tell, explained that the Council was conducting a project about ‘how our aged citizens have overcome adversity and now build our resilience’. And how ‘everyone talks about a lady named Vera’, how ‘we would videotape your story’ and how ‘we can get a translator to help if you want to speak in your cultural language’.
It wasn’t the language that Vera could not understand or worried about. That wasn’t what was making it hard for her to hear the young woman. Rather, it was the other voices. The village priest, Fat Danylo, starting the Easter vigil with the reading of the Gospel. Ivan and Natalka, the lovers, above in the choir stall close to the sky blue ceiling of the church, standing close together to hear each other’s song responses. Her mother, Sofia, wearing her finest blouse with the spring flower pattern, holding her hand, and asking Vera to pray together for their deceased husband and father. The young teacher Pavlo – afraid to attend – wishing them a good evening on their stroll home. Then, the drunken zit-faced lieutenant, sitting on the stoop of the Town Soviet, and using the butt of his pistol to scrape mud from his boots. He said nothing, but watched everyone for how and where they might be hiding their grain.
She heard Oleksa. In the mill where he’d spent 30 years, her husband had felt wartime shrapnel in his body when the magnetic force of the lava-like furnace was at its highest. A careful and quiet man.
‘A word is not a sparrow, Virochka. Once it flies out, you won’t catch it,’ Oleksa said to her.
‘Are you okay, Mrs Vera? Is there anything you want to ask me? Will you think about it? It would really make a difference for people to know,’ she heard Melissa say.
‘Yes yes good. I will think about,’ Vera replied and took Melissa’s crested business card – Community Development Officer – and good bye greetings.
It was time to water. But without thinking, Vera changed into shoes resting on the veranda. It was overcast and windy, and she started to walk toward the beach. Signora Romero waved to her as she pulled her car out of the drive and Vera politely said ‘no it’s okay – I’m taking a walk’.
She passed the houses of the other neighbours – other men and women from the mill and from all of Europe’s violence. Past the Bowling Club where the “Aussies” went to drink beer and roll heavy balls as big as her cabbages while covering their red noses with white cream. Past Father Andriy’s church where a gutter was hanging loose above a stained glass window of St Volodymyr the Great.
The wind was strongly picking up from the south and it held the ocean waves up until they crushed onto themselves close to shore. A light brown foam was building up at the shore break and edging up the sand. Bits would break off in the wind and twirl in the air. Long strands of leather-like kelp laced along the first berm. The sea, turbulent and impenetrable, like cinder blocks being tossed around, tore at itself. It had brought Vera here and kept the past 15,000 kilometres away, or at least locked up in plots and plants.
Vera thought of her lawyer granddaughter, named Sofia for her greatgrandmother, and wondered when she would next visit. That she should find more time to show her the special embroidery pattern.