Alex Brenner was a finalist for our 2017 Short-Short Story Contest. Her piece "Shpykiv" originally appeared in The Southeast Review 36.1.
Stefania hated English. The hard R’s hurt her jawbone. The W’s were impossible. She did not want to spend her entire life asking for vater. It was easier to remain mute than to speak and betray her mind, which thought firmly in Ukrainian. Yakov did not understand. He implored her to speak in English, but it was so painful to use a new word for a concept she already understood. I love you did not mean half of what Yatebe liubliu meant inside the bowels of her mind.
Stefania did not want to come to America or learn its customs. She taught her child Ukrainian even though Ukraine failed her. Her tongue was all she had left of Shpykiv. Yakov did not seem to miss Shpykiv at all, and she worried that her American son, Viktor, would never know its beauty. From her window back home, she could see the wheat’s amber glow alongside their synagogue. Sunflowers dotted the open land for miles. New York did not have such things.
If the goyim had not come in the night with matches and guns, she would still be living there happily. In Shpykiv she laughed in a language that made sense, but no one laughed there anymore. Now the town was just a headstone for those who did not leave. That bloody night Yakov saw her, standing frightened in only a nightgown with a halo of angry torches behind her. He begged her to run, but she couldn’t. She refused to leave Shpykiv, but he would not permit her to stay. Yakov pulled her across Europe for months until they reached a port, while her fiancé’s corpse rested underneath fecund soil. Marrying Yakov was never part of the plan, but Adam was dead and her family did not survive to object. Every day, Stefania wondered what grew atop Adam’s resting place. From her window, she watched him fall into the ditch. How long did he survive the gunshot?
Decades after their shtetl was destroyed in the night, Stefania begged Yakov to return with her. Europe is safe again, she pleaded. Yakov refused. Viktor, now a grown man lacking both an accent and a taste for beetroot, could not understand her preoccupation with Shpykiv. His American wife spoke to Stefania as one would to a slow child. Stefania no longer needed her family’s approval, only God’s. With her hair under a threadbare babushka, she boarded a plane in the night while they slept.
A taxi took Stefania from Kiev airport to Shpykiv, driving through the night. Only ghosts live there, the driver said. She nodded. Upon arriving, she collapsed on the desolate soil, now a grave. On her hands and knees, she crawled along the ground toward Adam’s resting place. Wild barley covered him like blanket. She picked grain as the taxi drove off. In the distance, a sturdy woman with a familiar face waived her over. Laskavo prosymo, she said. That night they made bread from the fruit of Adam’s grave.
Alex Brenner is has been published in several journals. They have a lot of degrees. They have a lot of cats. They speak too many foreign languages, which agitates their dyslexia like you would not believe. They've had so many challenges that sometimes they wonder what type of person they were in a past life, then they shudder under the weight of the implication. Alex lives in DC but is from Florida and thinks of it often. They are afraid to visit home anymore, because to do so might result in a desire to remain so strong that to fight it would be hopeless. One day, Alex will have a lemon tree in their backyard, even if it kills them, even if they kill it.