The Black House (Lviv)



Tonight we stay in a Soviet hotel,” Ivan said.


“What’s that?”


“A Dneister hotel in Lviv. With Soviet people. No Intourist. This is okay?”


“It’ll be like home,” I said. I was sprawled on my bunk writ in my diary. We’d left Uzgorod late and with the dark and the rain there was nothing to see from the window of the train.


“We had left before super but Ivan promised we wouldn’t starve. He had slipped into the kitchen and now he took a package of lox, bread, cheese and two bottles of local beer out of his coat pockets.


“A picnic,” he said. “Is that right?”


There was a tablecloth with Ukrainian stitching and a vase with dried flowers. Ivan was busy dividing the salmon and the bread. We had no plates so he tore the paper in half and put the food on each piece. He opened his pocket knife and stuck it into the cheese.”

“Yes,” I said, “a picnic.

I wished it were daylight. I would have liked to see the countryside. I’d heard about Lviv all  my life. Every immigrant said, at some time in his story, “When we got to Lviv…” It was from here that the trip to Germany began and from there to North America. It was in Lviv they said good-bye to the Ukraine, to their brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers.


The salmon and the bread were good. The cheese was old and strong. The bottles of beer were large, a quart maybe.


After we’d eaten, Ivan said, help me with my English. We were sitting together on the lower bunk when the conductress brought the tea. Ivan was reading out loud from Saturday Night. I was watching the page, correcting his pronunciation. The article was on Aides and after he’d finished it, he said, I didn’t know it was so serious. We haven’t heard. I’m sorry. I just joke about the women. I talk lots. I don’t do anything. I felt sorry for him, the way I felt sorry for myself when the information had first sunk in, that nothing was going to be the way it was ever again, like after somebody has died and at firsts you think nothing will change but it does and one day you finally accept it.


We arrived at midnight. Ivan made me get my suitcase and stand in the door well between the coaches. “No car tonight,” he said. “We take taxi.”


We hurried along the platform and down the broad steps to the taxi stand but there was already a line up. In front of us was a fashionably dressed woman with a tiny dog.


“Wait here,” Ivan said, “I go check.” When I started to wander away to look at some sculpture, he said, “Watch the luggage., These are good people but watch anyway.”


“Why do you say Dneister is home?” He had a habit of doing that, waiting for an hour or maybe a day before asking about something I had said, as if first he had to give it a great deal of serious thought.


I was busy looking out the window, trying to see everything that went by. “Because at home there is the Dneister district and the Dneister school and Dneister everything. Everyone came from Halychena. They settled in the swamp. Berlo and Frazerwood and Silver and Winnipeg Beach and Malonton and Dneister. Everybody knows Dneister.”


The next morning I fell in love with Lviv. The entire city was a museum. I loved the cannonballs hung in chains as punishment for striking the cathedral. I loved the black house stained with walnut juice. I loved the causal way my guide Pasha said, in the town square, “There is the house of Count Dracula.”


“What do you want to see?” Pasha asked.


“All of it. Every stone.”


Pasha laughed. “Have you a year and we go out every day. Maybe not every stone but the most important things. That takes a month. How much time do you have?”


“A day.”


“A day! A day!” He threw his arms in the air.


“Show me what you want,” I said. “It’s your city.”


“We’ll take the car.”


“No, no car, no driver. We walk.”


We went through the ritual of my not being American but Canadian  and how Canadians love to walk. Pasha gave the driver a package of Canadian cigarettes and told him to meet us later. We toured the square and looked at the building Ukrainian prisoners were forced to build. The day it was completed, they were executed. Then we went to the cemetery. Here Pasha told me stories of bodies buried in the graves of others until it was safe to re-bury them under their own names. There were tombs, centuries of tombs, all with stories, and endless, haphazard gravestones and plinths, a jumble of history and necessity, not at all like the orderly precise graves of Sweden with their carefully raked gravel beds, but chaotic and full of emotion.


I was still separate from it, untouched, somehow, until we were leaving and I saw a stone pillar and on it, flowers. I went to look and the flowers were in a beer can. The simplicity of it touched me. I stood there for a long time, not wanting to ever forget the flowers or the can or the pillar or the way I felt at that moment.


It was a crazy day, a day like no other, as if we were both frenzied, both wanting me to see, to feel, to be imprinted with Lviv. We went through a Gothic passageway into a courtyard which contained a statue of a man and woman joined back to back. Here, Pasha said, adulterers had been tied to display the shame of their unfaithfulness. Because of the perfect acoustics, music was played  here in summer and people stood around the balconies but it was not this Pasha had brought me to see, but an opening in the pavement and steps leading down.


“They have only recently found these tunnels under the city,” Pasha said. “They are very old and no one knows where all of them go. It is good to see them but if we go down here there will be no time for anything else.”


I was torn between the two but chose to see more of the city. The sight of the tunnel raised memories of the catacombs of Kiev, of glass-topped coffins, of bodies in white shrouds, their faces covered with purple cloth embroidered with silver an gold. I’d had enough of that, of claustrophobia and death.


Instead, we went to a cathedral and chanced upon the city symphony practicing. Like the flowers in the beer can there was something appropriate about it, something better than having come dressed for the finished performance. We stood on the edge of a large crowd, listening to Bach, among a flock of gilt angels which hovered about the walls. In the center of the room a massive plumb hung suspend from the cupola and swung endlessly back and forth. I was overawed b the beauty, by the magnificence of the carvings, by the size of the building. Everywhere I turned there was something worth seeing. Now I understood what Pasha meant by my having to stay for a year to see everything. This building alone, to be seen, not looked at, but truly seen, needed a day to itself.


We went to a second cathedral and here there was no symphony, no spectators, only worshippers, nearly all old women in black clothes, lying flat on the stone floor or walking on their knees, repeatedly stopping and crossing themselves, fingering their beads, asking who knew what favour or forgiveness. The room was filled with the light and space of the New Testament. The pastel columns soared toward a glory of stained glass. But then I crossed the room to the entrance of the old cathedral which was Gothic, heavy, filled with shadows and fear, a place suitable to worship an avenging God. I deliberately placed myself where the two interiors met and stretched out my arms to either side.


“I did not intend to make this a day of cathedrals,” Pasha said “but this is on the way.”


We stopped at what had been an Albanian ghetto to look at a church which had sunk many feet into the gourd so that it seemed more like a s hip foundering than a building. The gate was fastened with a chain and lock. “Lviv is built on marsh. Everything looks solid but it sinks. It is a problem.”


We stopped in a sixteenth century street. The buildings were a solid wall which came right to the edge of the cobblestones on either side. There were no signs. No people. If I had been alone, I would have walked by without stopping. Pasha opened a door and we were immediately in a small room crammed with people eating cake and drinking coffee. The conversation paused when we entered, then began again. I went with Pasha to the counter to pick out cake and to watch the coffee being made. The man behind the counter took a small metal pot and carefully measured out coffee for it and water. Then he set the pot in a bed of hot sand. When he brought the coffee to our table, it came in tiny cups. It was strong and black and like nothing I’d ever drunk before.


“Just time for one more place,” Pasha said.


The car was waiting for us. We went to a hill overlooking the city. They got out beside a tour bus and climbed the h ill. There were lots of trees and the ground was covered in last year’s leaves. We stopped at the wall of an old castle. Stone steps wound upward and children ran past, chasing each other and laughing. When we reached the crest there was no one else there. The wind was cold and nearly blew my cap off.


“Is it always like this? I asked.


“Worse,” Pasha said. “But it is worth it.”


Lviv was spread out before us. A vast sweep of trees and buildings and endless golden domes and steeples. Above us there was endless blue sky and scudding clouds.


“Magnificent!” I exclaimed. The golden buildings spread out in all t heir glory, like something from Arabian nights. Everywhere I looked as we circle the hill were steeples and cupolas,  like the risen Christ, I thought, like hosannas in brick and metal, a golden city built on faith.


“Yes,” Pasha agreed. “Magnificent. To keep this one running,” he sighted along his arm and I leaned close so that I was looking at the right building, “took the taxes of fifteen thousand peasants every year.”


Later, when I was back on the train, writing in my diary, I tried to remember the names, the endless names, and the dates, but t hey ran together. I remembered instead, the tombs stained black with walnut juice and the black house and the coffee and Pasha saying that when the Americans came they wanted to argue about everything, even if they knew no history no politics, and I wrote it all down, except for  how magnificent the cathedrals were, writing down, instead, fifteen thousand, and trying t imagine it in Canada. A city the size of Lethbridge or Brandon and fifteen thousand families every year forced to pay their income tax to keep one local church running. I had intended to write a story about the cathedrals. Instead, I wrote about the stone column and the bouquet of flowers in a beer can.