Ukrainian Forest, with Cuckoo

It was decided we should go to the forest and grill meat. Our social work conference had come to an end earlier in the day and the afternoon was given over to dancing and celebrating and music, as these things do in small Ukrainian villages. “Mama” had a boyfriend who lived on the edge of the forest and she insisted we go. He would start the fire and wait for us.


We loaded the small van with onions, jars of pickles, thick bread and raw sausages, bottles of the local vintage, benches from the small community hall upon which we would sit for our thirty minute ride. First in the van was an electronic keyboard. I know, I didn’t get it, either.


We arrived just as the last vestiges of day fled the skies, the small clearing where Mama’s boyfriend’s cabin stood shrouded in mist and that other, eerie thing you can’t see exactly, but the hair on the back of your neck knows is there. The forest lay just beyond the clearing, deep greens and black, a small fire blazing orange and crackling in the dark, a blue haze around the cabin, Mama’s man standing outside the door and playing the trumpet, something mournful, to greet us.


What transpires next is a bit confused, but the electronic keyboard was set up close to the fire, spirits flowed, meat was grilled, the keyboard player cranked out endless refrains of “Černy Glahse” or something that translates roughly “black eyes.” This is what I was told, or worked out for myself.


We sat in a circle on fallen logs as bottles of spirits and plates of grilled sausages were passed in swift rotation.


It was dark, thank goodness, so I could pass the bottles of sliivoice and wine with barely a sip. More worrisome were the sausages, so I took small pieces of meat, nibbled around on the charred bit, tossing the rest over my shoulder and into the woods, and thus avoided the three-day bout of debilitating food poisoning that brought down my travel mates.


While my friends were busy honing their singing skills and incubating listeria, I closed my eyes and tried to isolate the night sounds that made their way through all the glad revelry. It was in these woods, during a lull, that I heard it. Thought I must have it wrong, listened harder. There it was again.


A cuckoo.
In the forest.
In Ukraine.
With sausages.


It turns out the cuckoo is a horrible creature, kicking eggs out of nests to lay their own, so some other, better mother might hatch them, never suspecting her own babies are somewhere down below, not to be.


Just then, though, I didn’t know this about the cuckoo, and the cuckoo’s call at evenfall was mysterious and mythical and somehow made sense of the events unfolding around me and explained my presence there, too. This bird in a tree helped me feel grounded and present–and amused and filled with love for the forest, that bird and my sweet companions.


It was earlier this summer when I was awakened, every morning at 4:30 a.m., by a cuckoo, or a bird sounding very much like one. This went on for weeks, disrupting my sleep and puzzling me. The voice was similar to the mourning dove, that odd, mechanical and hollow hoot of summer mornings. But it wasn’t a mourning dove.


A friend asked what the bird looked like, and it never occurred to me I might see it in a tree, attach the call to a particular bird. I did some research, and we do have cuckoos in North America, but their call is different from their European cousins. I studied the plumage, vowed to get up early the next morning and go outside, see this bird.


The next morning 4:30 came and went and no cuckoo’s call. Nor the next morning, nor the next.


A younger version of myself might haven been bothered by this, strident to prove to others and herself, she really did hear a cuckoo, bringing it up in conversations no one could possibly care about, just to prove herself right. That old insistence to be taken seriously.


I don’t care quite so much about that anymore. But I wonder. Was it a sign, a gift, a secret message for me to decode? So much to put on a thing so fleeting and flimsy as a bird’s call. Or maybe, it was just this. A memory of the forest, and faces lit up by fire and drink and friendship, all smiling, all singing, all together. And somewhere an electric keyboard, and somewhere, a cuckoo.

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