Published in the April 3rd, 2011 issue of the Ukrainian Weekly.
During my recent visit to Kyiv, I veered off the touristy Andriivs’kyi Descent, and walked down Desyatynna Street, hoping to find the Bandurist I had once seen playing there. Desyatynna is a very unspectacular street. The sounds of the merchants at their tourist shops on Andriivs’kyi fades as you walk. It is residential. From an apartment of one building hung a sign protesting the construction of additional units on the roof. The street gets more interesting when it dead-ends into the parking lot of the imposing, Soviet-style Ministry of Foreign Affairs, not far from St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery, but I only walked to where I had once seen the ancient Kobzar. As on my previous four or five attempts, there was no sign of him.
I’d seen him only once, and now wonder if he wasn’t a ghost. There are many more ghosts wandering over Ukraine’s black earth than over the U.S. I don’t know how to describe it to my American friends. Perhaps it can be understood by Southerners and Indians, by the losers of wars. Those ghosts, half in the wind, half in your blood, press you with that lonely urgency. You sense some critical knowledge which nobody’s telling you, as if you missed a day of school and are now condemned to stumble on in confusion.
It is a rare thing when one of them speaks to you.
I saw him in November. Small, sharp drops of cold rain had just begun falling through the wind. I actually walked past him, coming within several steps without noticing him. Then I heard a tinkling in the wind, bells you might associate with angels or the souls of babies. I turned and saw the ancient man.
His sun-baked cheeks were sunken, and eyes half shut. He looked so emaciated, my first thought concerned whether or not I should seek medical attention for him. The grey ends of his mustache curled off his face, and blew in the wind beneath his chin as I wondered what to do. His fingers were gnarled like roots, with thick, brown finger nails. They seemed to barely move over the strings of his bandura, perhaps having learning efficiency over several lifetimes of practice. I saw all this before I heard him, as he played very quietly.
The street was empty except for us. I would have liked a second opinion, a verification of sorts. Some magic in the sounds he produced held me frozen in place.
The wood of his instrument was blackened where his fingers gripped it, and the strings too were black with grime except for where he plucked them. There, the strings shone as brightly as the domes of St. Michael’s Monastery. He wore a great wool hat, and an over-sized coat. I felt so absorbed by this strange apparition that it was his ragged velcro sneakers which seemed anachronistic, rather than the man himself. A melodic groan blew from his skinny neck, and I stepped still closer.
Between breaths he opened his eyes slightly and seemed to take me in without giving anything back, never interrupting his ancient song. I leaned even closer, tilting my good ear toward him. It seemed he sung of a young girl whose lover will not return from war, children begging for bread, and a solemn line of horsemen and the grasses of the endless steppe opening then closing behind them like water. The sounds unwinding from his strings contained the rocking of slave ships on the Black Sea, devastated cities, and a mother whose children are condemned to work foreign lands. There were Scythian Mounds, torn open graves, betrayal and forgotten glory. There were people hiding in their gardens with the wagon cars outside, and the ashes of a library.
If I could only have listened longer, taken a seat at his torn, velcro sneakers and listened, I might have learned that missing bit of knowledge for which I’ve been so hungry, that elusive clarity. The movements of his long-practiced fingers to retell the stories and glories consumed by fire, reignite the lights vanished by darkness. It was all there, but I woke up. I startled awake, as if from a dream.
The ghost had vanished in the wind. I stood over the withered Kobzar. He played on, but my usual reality crept back into my thoughts, crowding him away. Some important obligation — I don’t remember what — compelled me to move on. I made a mental note to return to that spot, thinking, idiotically, that I could capture all the loneliness and history with my digital camera and post it on this blog.
Regardless of how futile it would be, I’ve returned five or six time now with no luck. If I do come across the ghost again, I hope I’ll find the courage to sit at his feet and listen.