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The Magpie Sings the Great Depression:
Selections from DeWitt Clinton High School's Literary Magazine, 1929-1942

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By William Sirotenko, '35

The Magpie, May 1935, p. 5.

August, 1916! A blood-red harvest sun slowly disappears behind a hill and sends his scarlet rays to play upon the summit. But for the crest, which is tinted with reddish-orange daubs, the hill is immersed in a pool of dark shadows. Suddenly, the crest flickers and dies out. The sun has set.

A man mounts the summit and begins to descend. He is shabby and gaunt in appearance, wearing a torn and dirty Russian uniform. He has been walking for several hours, following his daring escape from a German war camp. His steps are slow and irregular. The road he has been following became rougher and rougher until it finally disappeared altogether and he now seems to be walking in an exceedingly rugged field. Now and then he pauses to rest, and staggers forth again. It has become quite dark, and the lone soldier advances only with the greatest difficulty, striking, at recurring intervals, some sort of mound over which he carefully steps. All of a sudden, he stumbles over one of these hillocks falling flat on his face. Bruised and exhausted, he pulls himself together and sits upon the obstacle which has caused his unexpected descent. It is soft, and earthy, and he sinks into it—a little dazed from the fall. The soldier becomes drowsy. The black night forms an impenetrable barrier between him and his destination. He feels isolated and knows that it is futile to attempt to reach town surrounded, as it were, by some mysterious Cimmerian fluid. He despairingly sprawls himself out on the mound (which is oblong). It is a warm night and he soon falls asleep.

* * * * *

Our lone soldier awoke with a start. The warm sunlight was playing upon his face. He sat up and drowsily looked about him. Suddenly, he stood bolt upright and passed a trembling hand over his forehead. He swayed with vertigo and staggered forward; his mouth opened and shut without uttering any coherent sounds. He stared at a heap of ruin at his feet—a heap of bricks, charred beams, and multicolored ashes. In one corner was a bit of wall—all that was left of a house. He stood and stared at this heap.

He did not see the freshly molded mounds of reddish-brown earth that were scattered here and there, closely resembling the one upon which he slept, and obviously marking recently dug graves. He did not notice that among these graves were gaping, irregular shell holes. He did not stop to wonder how, in the name of all reason, he had contrived to walk this barren field without falling into one of them? He did not stagger to the lip of a shell hole and peer in, to see a stinking, stagnant, vermin-infested puddle, meekly reflecting the sun's rays. Bloodstained bandages, hair, straw, and torn bits of uniforms, together with the bones of a decaying horse, fragments of shells, broken pieces of artillery and sandbags were soaking in the green scum. In one corner of this ghastly pit the teeth of a skull were vigorously biting into the green crust! In another corner lay a decaying body, wrapped in a uniform. It had boots—but no head!

The ground was pulverized over and over again—and was strewn with debris. The field was a veritable mess—broken axles, broken spokes, rusted rims—crushed helmets, twisted helmets, broken helmets—demolished machine guns, broken rifles, swords, sabres, bayonets—tins of ammunition, cartridge belts, hand grenades, shells—boots, leather boots, rubber boots, bloody boots—bones, blood, scum, filth, decaying flesh. There was a well, choked up with broken bricks, barrel rims, staves, fragments of mortar, limbs of animals, broken, charred logs, and the like, so that it was well-nigh level with the ground. Near by, a heap of bricks, broken window frames, burnt beams and a crumbled chimney unmistakably indicated that a house formerly had stood there. Springing up about these ruins were charred tree trunks which showed, to the indifferent world, their burnt and naked limbs, and which were reflected in the clear, quiet, and unconcerned river that flowed past.

He did not see all this. Nay, he stood before the heap of ruin which had been his home, his birthplace—and trembled. Presently he sank to the ground, hugging the cool earth and sobbing softly. Tears filled his eyes, formed little drops at the ends and, receiving a sparkle from the sun's rays, rolled down his cheeks. His face was pale and grey, he was but a youth. On his right wrist was a bracelet and on the bracelet was the inscription: "Semen Sushko—1st Russian Army, Company A."

* * * * *

Not so very long ago, on that war-torn field, had flourished a quiet hamlet, proud of its beauty. It stood on a small hill, overlooking a river and was half-buried in trees. Along the northern bank of the river, called "Proris," was another cluster of trees. Weeping willows, maples, limes, and poplars were all huddled together and embraced each other like so many young children at play. Long and dreamy were their embraces. Occasionally, they were forcefully separated from each other by the wind, only to unite laughingly again as they tickled each other under the limbs. The maple would whisper to the lime, the lime would whisper to the poplar until they an shook with hearty laughter and finally quieted down into a dreamy embrace as the last gust of wind spent itself among the towering leaves.

Not many homes were in this hamlet—only two. * Immaculately white they were, standing by the narrow country road and showing their golden-brown thatched roofs in the sunlight. Opposite these white cottages there was a well which tempted the wayfarer to a cool drink. He would approach the well, remove his hat, and peer down over the rim to see how deep the water was. He then would fasten the water-bucket to the well-sweep which, with a huge wheel at the end as a weight, squeaked as he lowered the bucket. One—two and the full bucket rested on the rim. The traveler would kneel, part his mustache, cross himself, and with one hand pressing his full grey beard to his chest and the other diligently balancing the bucket—he would drink. "Ah!", he would exclaim, smacking his lips in satisfaction, "God bless these good people for their cool water."

It was a very joyful life which the inhabitants of the cottages led. In one, the smaller of the two, lived a widower, Ivan Sushko and his adopted son, Semen. In the other, lived his life-long friend Volodimir Volk, a gray-haired man and also a widower. He had a daughter, Odarka.

These men had known each other since childhood. They had grown up together, suffered together, shared their joys and worries. Sushko was big and husky with a flowing red beard and mustache. He was not what one might call poor. Through his diligence as a farmer, he had been able to get a moderate livelihood from the soil. Of the two, it may be said that Sushko was the philosopher and Volk the pupil, but the latter was an exceedingly fine cook. It was he that prepared the excellent meals for both households. Volodimir was short and stout with a round, happy face, and what was exceptional, had neither beard nor mustache.

The two children—Semen and Odarka were of the same age. Robust and happy, laughing and playing in the sunlight, delighting in each other's peculiar and childish antics, how could they have foreseen the future? Why should they think of what life had in store for them? But Sushko and Volk—the philosopher and pupil—often winked to each other and gleefully smiled at the prospect of uniting these two happy children when they should have reached the proper age.

Oblivious to the scheming of these elderly men, the children played in the courtyard or sat on the bank of the river and threw daisy petals on the mirror-like surface to attract the fish who nibbled at the white petals to the delight of Semen and Odarka. On Sundays and holidays, the children were to be found siding (quite impatiently) on the doorstep of Sushko's house. They were waiting for the old gentleman who presently was seen making his way through the tall grass. No sooner did his head appear from behind the bend than the children surrounded him, pulled the "giant" down to earth and threw their stubby arms around his neck. They pinched his cheeks, pulled his beard, and finally, with a wild burst of exuberant laughter, dug deep into his pockets where they were sure to find their presents. The trio then wound their way through the narrow path to the lawn where Volodimir had spread a tablecloth under a pear tree. Then the four happy people sat down to sup.

* * * * *

Many years later, after the customary Sunday supper under the pear tree, we find the now very aged Sushko sitting in front of his cottage. His face is burnt and wrinkled. He is puffing at an old, distorted pipe and softly humming an old hymn. Volk, thin and stooped, approaches Sushko and sits down beside him. He taps the latter on the knee and in a husky voice slowly speaks (while pointing a trembling cane at Semen and Odarka who are leaning against a haystack and talking softly to each other).

"Ivan, my friend, it is time that we unite our two love birds." Ivan slowly turns in the direction of the haystack and a wrinkled smile breaks upon his cheeks.

"Well," he says after a while, "if it is time, it is time." He puffs vigorously at his pipe and glows a thin column of smoke into the air. He assumes a grave look and beckons to Semen and Odarka. The two quickly approach and stand before the grey men. Ivan, keeping his eyes fixed upon the pipe which he now holds in his hands, begins.

"Here is the situation, young man! You are no longer a curly-haired boy. You have grown into a man—a strong, husky man. I have reared you, Semen; I have given you a home; I have made you a good worker; I have never mistreated you. It is time that you make a place for yourself in this world."

Ivan places the pipe on the bench and strokes his beard.

"Tomorrow," he begins again, "you shall leave me, perhaps forever. As for Odarka, she is young and pretty, and it will not be difficult to marry her off to some other fellow."

Semen trembled—he was speechless. His rosy cheeks, which were in such perfect harmony with his silky, sand-colored hair, turned pale. Beads of perspiration formed on his high forehead. He stood there trembling. Never had he known Sushko to speak like this before.

For the first time in her life, Odarka's eyes watered and large tears rolled down her cheeks. She buried her black, velvet locks in Semen's muscular arm and sobbed. Unseen by either of the two standing before him, Ivan looked at Volodimir and winked. The latter blinked his eyes capriciously and chuckled.

Soon after, the nervous strains of a violin and the impatient beats of a drum disturbed the quiet June air. Occasional bursts of laughter and song reached far out into the silent night. A buggy left Volodimir's house and rumbled up the hill. The sole occupant, the village priest, smiled whimsically. If smiles were given the power of speech, that whimsical smile would say; "In all my years, I have never united in matrimony so loving a couple as Semen and Odarka."

The buggy disappeared behind the hill.

* The Ukrainian hamlet or "hutir" does not consist, generally, of more than two or three homes which are usually located along a river or centered about a deep well.

The Magpie Sings the Great Depression

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