By Jefferson Hunt.
It happened any years ago, long before the first train whistled shrill and high through Kyiv and before the Tsarina took over the Cossack Hetmanate. Perhaps it was the time of Helen of Kyiv, or the time of … who knows? But, my son, what is important to remember is that it happened, it did. It is true, just as my father told me and as his father told him.
Don’t yawn at me, my boy. Hand me my tea and get yourself a cup. It is a good story, I promise. … Ah, hot tea.
I will tell you the story of Yevgeniy, a boy of that time so long ago when it seemed everyone wanted what our beloved Ukraine had, still has – the Tsars, the Polls, the Khan of the Mongols, the Tatar – ach! Everyone! Everyone wanted our beautiful land and our beautiful people.
That, my boy, was Yevgeniy’s undoing. Yes – and he looked very much like you. He had long, dark hair like flax, big dark eyes with those lashes you bat when you want your way, and those inquisitive eyebrows. Ahhh. He knew he was a beautiful boy, and becoming a young man did nothing to mar his beauty.
It was then, when he had grown older, when he began to look more like a man and less like a boy, then it was his beauty brought him more trouble than he had bargained for, and her name was Alla.
Yevgeniy, you see, would skip out on his chores – his tending the horse, the cow, the chickens, the fences. “Babushka,” he would say to his dear grandmother and bat his lashes. “I will take the eggs to market.”
“But, Yevgeniy, your papa will….”
“Won’t he be happy he has one less thing to do? Of course.”
She would protest, but he would kiss her cheek and leave anyway. He would do this often, the leaving and going to the city. The older men would see him coming and nudge one another with a smirk and say, “Notch – do you see him? That jaunty walk as if the world were his.”
‘Notch,’ they called him, because he would notch his belt for each girl he had taken and made his own and left alone. He had notched the whole top of his belt, can you believe it?! and was working on the bottom side. Kyiv was already that big a city.
That was when he met Alla. Her family was Viking – tall and slender and blond as a sunflower but with bewitching ways of her own he knew nothing about.
Yevgeniy saw her in the market – saw her blond hair, her slim figure under her dress, and her blue eyes met his black and he batted his eyes.
Of course, she loved him from the moment she saw him.
“Fair lady,” he said to her and bowed deeply. “Here,” he said standing again, “a beautiful poppy for a beautiful lady.” She smiled when he handed her the flower. But, that was just the beginning. He asked, “What will you give me in return?”
“What?” she asked him, her eyes down to the flower and her voice petal soft. “You give me a gift and ask for something in return?”
“A fair exchange.”
But, she knew how frail, how quickly the poppy wilted. “Then, I will give you my thanks.”
She lived in the city, and he came often to find her, anxious to win the victory with her.
One day, as they sat in the market drinking tea, she remarked how tattered his belt seemed to be. But again, she knew more than she told him. You see, her father was one of those men who called Yevgeniy ‘Notch.’ “Beware, my Alla, or you will become his next notch.”
“Oh, my daughter, you know so little of the charms of a boy like this.”
“And he, my papa, knows nothing of my passion,” which was her way of speaking of her mother’s teaching the art of hexes.
They met again, Yevgeniy and Alla. “I feel like having an apple,” he said, taking her hand in his.
“Where will you get an apple?” she asked him.
“Mmm,” he hummed and pointed, “there – the farmer’s orchard.”
“You would steal an apple?”
“For you, I would steal the moon and stars.”
“And leave me in darkness.”
“But, you would have the moon and stars.”
But she was not talking about the moon and stars.
“Oh, don’t worry. I will ask the farmer’s maid there.” He let go Alla’s hand, walked bold as you please across the field to the farmer’s maid picking apples in the orchard.
Alla watched him as she plaited together grasses and blue flowers. She saw Yevgeniy lean close to the maid, her head bob shyly, him touch her hand – the dance of a couple falling in love – all this before he returned.
“An apple for you, my dear,” he said after he returned to Alla. “What will you give me in return?”
“This.” She held it up. “A necklace.”
He smiled and batted his eyes at her. “Will you put it on me?”
He leaned close to her and she to him. She reached her arms around him to tie the necklace around his neck. He breathed her hair, her dress, the mint she wore under her shirt, and his eyes opened up to hers.
She tied the knot and let her hands slide down from his neck, his shoulders, and his chest. He tilted his head to kiss her.
In a second, Alla saw the farmer’s maid watching and wiping a tear from her cheek. “Do you love the farmer’s maid?” she asked Yevgeniy.
This question stopped him. A frown wrinkled his brow. “No,” he replied and the necklace tightened. “I love you,” he said, and the necklace tightened, though he didn’t notice.
Alla slid her hands around his waist and asked him as she fingered the notches on his belt, “What are these notches for?”
“They are nothing.” And the necklace tightened so he ran a finger between it and his neck.
“Would you ever lie to me?”
“Never.” The necklace tightened and he gasped. “What is this?”
“What? What do you mean, truth?'”
“Are your eyes only for me?”
“Of course.” The necklace tightened so Yevgeniy’s breathing became ragged and his voice strangled. “What are you doing to me?” he asked, tugging at the necklace and stumbling back from Alla.
“I? I have done nothing.”
“It is lies.” His voice caught in his throat.
She said, “It is, and they will kill you unless you tell me the truth.”
“Truth? I…have.” The necklace tightened. He gasped, stumbled, fell. His beautiful hair drifting about his head, his black eyes wide. His lashes fluttered, stopped, and the moon and stars left his eyes.
Alla wept for Yevgeniy, and when the news of his death traveled about, there were many who wept for him. “So, my boy, what do you learn from my story?”
“Ah – well, Papa, Yevgeniy’s ways were lies to the girls and it was his lies that killed him, but the truth could have saved him.”
“Good, my boy. Be honest. … Drink your tea.”
“… But Papa. How do I show love to a girl?”
“Honestly, having only one – start there.”
JEFFERSON HUNT currently lives in the Eastern U.S. time zone, in the quiet of a small town. He has always heard it is important to write what you know. He hasn’t made a conscious decision to do that, but it seems to work out that way. He’s been to Ukraine and has studied Kyivan Rus and knows some about the ways of boys. That and the changing morality of the early Christian period served as the backdrop for his story, “Notch.”