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Lechy and the Oak Art by Melaredblu And Story by Vas
Remember The Oaks
By Vas Littlecrow Wojtanowicz
My father's surname is Merkachev, but my mother's maiden name was Volosenkova. My uncle Pavel came from the Volosenkov lineage as well. Their name came from Volos, our ancestral god. Unlike my father and brother, I had blue eyes like Pavel’s, though they eventually turned green. His father, Zmeyev Volosenkov, shared those same eyes. Perhaps that’s why I always felt closer to the Volosenkov men than I did to my immediate family.
On Winter’s Solstice, we hiked through the Baikal Forest as our ancestors had done when they still traded with the Central Asian nomads. Our forefathers came from the West back in the day when Poles and Russians still lived as one people. My grandfather came to Siberia when the Soviets sent him there on the whims of Stalin.
Marching boots sank and rose from snow shimmering like pulverized blue topaz. The crisp air froze my boogers, but I paid no mind to the indignity of winter’s taunts.The bare willow branches reminded me of hands raised in adulation, with glittery powder being blown about by the wind. Willows, with their supple serpentine branches, represent our ancestral god.
The elder Volosenkov was dressed in a deeper blue than that of the snow. He reminded me of a beardless Grandfather Frost. The old man had seen too much in his lifetime to smile anymore, and he didn't say much of anything unless he absolutely had to. A wolfskin with its canine face still attached to it served as a reminder of this grim reality. Divinity was too abstract for me to comprehend at age seven, so Pavel and Volos were one in the same to me. He was my god.
Uncle Pavel rarely stopped grinning. My father often called him an idiot for smiling so much, in spite of his background as a pharmaceutical chemist. The Soviet Union and its devotees frowned upon public displays of unrestrained emotion. In spite of the derision, the blessings of priesthood tickled him too much to worry about the Motherland’s social expectations. Pavel skillfully danced on the edge of propriety and ecstasy with the Great Serpent God as his guide. He wore a black wool hat with horns on each side and a green wool lined cape with two twisted crosses embroidered with yellow floss to show his devotion. Simple leather boots and peasant’s garb that predated the Soviet Republic displayed his humility.
His bright yet gruff voice made a request, "May I entrust you with something, Lech?"
"Sure," I replied sheepishly. I wore government issued winter clothes, so I felt unworthy of this holy man's request.
"It is very important that you keep this a secret, Lech." Grandfather warned, "Other adults around here detest our god. If they find out that we are teaching his ways to you, they will surely send us to prison and you will never see us again."
"Why do they hate God so much, Grandpa? What has he ever done to them?"
Uncle Pavel sighed, "Nothing."
Grandfather continued, "The lineage of our priesthood serves the god of honest trade and the old ways of agriculture.”
"In other words, we believe in the things that Soviet Communism would like to see annihilated and forgotten," Pavel added. Upon finishing the sentence, my uncle pulled a bear mask from his long, warm cape. "Grandfather gave it to me when I was a boy. It will be yours, but only if you are ready to keep an oath of secrecy."
I asked with quaking anticipation, “What is secrecy?”
Grandfather continued. “Secrecy is when you keep something a secret.” The old man took my hand. I looked at how rough and craggy his hand was. “It is too dangerous for men like us to reveal ourselves in these days of intolerance, so the burden of silence now falls upon you. I am growing old, and I will die before the new year comes, my dear grandson. Pavel will take my place as the High Priest of Volos, and you will take his place as a priestly apprentice.”
My eyes watered as I regarded grandfather’s arthritic fingers. “You can’t die. You’re my grandpa.” I had a pet lab rat that died earlier that year. His name was Snowy and he was my best friend. The thought of grandfather disappearing into that same abyss of death troubled me greatly.
Uncle Pavel, bent his legs down to my height to reassure me. “You probably don’t understand everything we are saying, but don’t worry about my father. He will be one with the base of the great oak tree, as we will all someday. Life is temporary, but the cycles of storms and sunshine are eternal." My uncle handed the mask to me. "Smile, little Lechy, and never be afraid. Volos will always be at your side, and the roots of a great oak tree will be waiting for all of us.”
I didn’t realize at the time that giant oaks didn’t normally grow this far north. No other tree like this one existed anywhere in the world. It existed to remind my family that the gods still watched over us. Even without knowing this, I knew that we belonged to the tree. “So, we’ll be together again when we die? Will Snowy live with the great oak too?”
“Of course. All living things are born to die.” Blue eyes mirrored mine, in a bed of yellow eyelashes, soft smile lines, and open pores. “But please, my dear nephew, you must not tell anyone of this ritual, the masks, or this day. The wickedness of Communism has even corrupted your parents.” Uncle Pavel stroked his beard nervously. “Do you understand?"
I covered my face with the bear mask, “Yes!” With that, I bolted. “I’m going to find the great oak and say hi to Snowy.” Pavel’s laughter echoed through the forest as I ran to find the biggest oak tree I could find. I looked back to see grandpa shaking his head and holding his priestly staff. My uncle chased after me with a roar, wearing a snake-like mask. With his cape and hat, he looked like a dragon flying towards me.
I found a huge oak tree that looked right to me, “This is it!” I listened to it. “Snowy is inside, and he’s happy.” I attempted to hug the tree, even though it was too big for even my uncle to wrap his arms around. “I love you tree! Thank you for being nice to everyone.”
I felt a weight on my shoulder. "You chose the right tree." It was Uncle Pavel’s hand. “You will make a fine priest someday, dear nephew.” I leaned my cheek towards the rough, hairy hand, hoping that dream would come true someday.