Flowers of the Black Earth: A Braided Essay – New Nonfiction by Marina Kraiskaya

Joint Winner of The Letter Review Prize for Nonfiction

I don’t know if she always meant it to sound just like every 17th century Slavic fairytale, but her stories too were sinister, expansive and striding; allegorical and feminine, with any resolution not much more than a dissolve into history.

Dense, wild land. A peasant girl kidnapped from her village by a far-off, untouchable evil. With level-headedness and resilience, with beauty and cleverness, she survives the hero’s journey. 

In Ventura County, California, grows the Matilija poppy, named after a chief of the Chumash tribe. The white flower shares its name with Matilija Canyon, which is full of waterfalls. One legend says that the poppy protects the soul of a chief’s kidnapped daughter. In the version I prefer, the girl chooses to leave home for a beloved. When he dies at war, she falls and scatters into flowers. 

Image: Don McCullough, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

Maybe, whether we are descendants or survivors, this is just the way we tell war stories, softening the panic, doubt, and terror that must have been there as centuries of blood pool beneath our floorboards.

In the first version of the Chumash tale, the girl is forced to live with her captors and never comes home. In any form, the theme is heartbreak and early death. The princess is transformed by the gods into the millions of flowers coloring the Mexican coastline. 

In the 1930’s, a starving country about the size of Texas – with double the population – contributed 25% of Soviet agricultural output. As Stalin starved up to 10 million people, Ukrainians watched as not only grain, but the soil itself, was carted away across enemy lines. 

My great-grandmother, Vera, was 17 during the early Nazi raids, which would take the lives of hundreds of thousands. But she showed some promise of being useful to the enemy, as blondes were often seized for foreign labor. She even spoke a bit of German.

In early spring, the winter-dormant seeds of eschscholzia californica begin to germinate across the golden state. Native to the warm hills spanning from Western Oregon to Baja California, the poppy fortifies its seeds against uncertainties like change in rainfall. In the mesas, fragile greens and creamy oranges flash around vernal pools, spindly and bright against dark basalt remains of Miocene lava flows. 

As heat rises along the Pacific Ocean, lone sparks flare up in uncut lawns, spreading. Fire blooms across patches of undeveloped American lands, vineyards, and through wild hills of chaparral, oak, and pine. 

Climate conditions in much of Ukraine, meanwhile, are comparable to the U.S. corn belt of Minnesota, North Dakota, and South Dakota. High in phosphoric acids, phosphorus, and ammonia, Ukraine is the country of black earth, chernozem – which constitutes a billion-dollar industry both legally and on the black market. It is a rare and ancient soil we never stop pulling bodies from. 

Poppies in Greco-Roman myth are the flowers of Ceres or Demeter, who carried them in sheaves from the underworld. Their brightness meant resurrection; they were offerings for the dead. In Slavic mythology, Demeter’s equivalents are Marzanna (Polish), Marena (Russian), Mara (Ukrainian), or Morana (Czech, Slovene, Croatian, Serbian). The totem of the goddess of spring; of dreams, in some villages, is still ritualistically burned before it’s sent flowing down the river. 

As during the wars of the past, annual spring rain erases Eastern Europe’s old country roads, sinking tanks and ruining incursions. A brief hand of cold water wipes the country clean before we redraw lines and reignite our fires.

In 1943, SS forces would commit Germany’s largest “punitive operation,” killing 6,700 in Koriukivka. All that was left standing were ten brick buildings and one church. As survivors stumbled and picked through the ruins, they were captured and burned alive. 

People across Europe now weave red poppies into their hair and clothes each May to mark the anniversary of the Nazi surrender. These nods to nature are not so different from the rituals to land-gods and goddesses carried out by their pre-Orthodox forefathers, who met each coming spring with fire, music, and the branches of early blossoms. 

I am the first of my Ukrainian and Ashkenazi family to be raised in America. I speak Russian, due to Soviet colonialism. Before the war, it was a language I loved. 

I also have more Neanderthal DNA than 99% of people tested by 23&Me. Scientists are only beginning to discover the implications of this. As with my bilingualism, I feel the fact’s useless and potentially deadly, bitter weight. It is a thing to be handled with forethought. A thing that could define, could surprise. A thing probably best left buried. 

In 1856, in Neander Valley, Germany, quarry workers unearthed unusual bones. These would be the first of thousands, though a full genome would not be collected until the 1990’s. The skeletons were pieced together: big brains, heavy brows, wide chests. Homo sapiens had split with them, from our common ancestor, some 600,000 years ago. And 250,000 years later, a new lineage: Denisovans, discovered in Siberia. In 2018, an amazing statistical impossibility was realized when paleogeneticists discovered a first-generation hybrid. An ancient girl with one parent from each human species – Neanderthal and Denisovan.

Neanderthal DNA may mean resistance to common viruses, a heightened sense of smell, and some ability to adapt to higher altitudes. Due to less sunlight in those northern latitudes, however, the genes may also be linked to a higher risk of depression and cancer.

I wonder if whether on the journey from her home near the Russian border, across Ukraine and into Poland and Austria, Vera looked through some small window at the low, bright sky and the wheatfields. Her name meaning faith, she would later name her only daughter Lyuba, love. My mother is named after hope and her sister after faith. One would study art, the other dance. 

Somewhere in the back of the Museum of Natural History in Santa Barbara lie the separated bones of two people. They rested for 13,000 years in the Channel Islands – so far, the oldest human skeletons on the continent, suggesting that the land’s first settlers were Polynesian or south Asian. I like to think that they loved exploring the protein-rich beaches, healing themselves with native plants and expressing their proto-writing thoughts with flint, stone chips, and charcoal. I imagine them tracing dreams and metaphors onto canyon walls, tree bark, and wet sand. 

Several times a year, my mother, in her black ‘94 Honda Civic, would make the hour drive to Sacramento to pick discerningly through Slavic goods: jars of vegetables, bags of buckwheat, rows of meats, breads, tea, cards made of recycled paper, burned CDs, little glass animals, rolled up rugs, barrels of candy wrapped in bright foil. We would forego the capitol building and its rose gardens for delis and pastel bookstores. I’d hover before a long row of precariously stacked silk kasinkas; behind me, endless medicines made of plants that don’t grow in North America.

My mother is a thin brunette who reminds me of a spotted eagle. Her domestic manners are those of a Victorian lady: she does the same things at the same times of day, and carefully. She gardens, reads mystery books and memoirs, and can draw your portrait. She’s like most immigrant parents, asking for perfect grades and grandchildren, hating waste and bad stewardship. 

In 1965, in a Ukrainian valley, a farmer digging out a cellar uncovered a massive mammoth jawbone. As archaeologists flocked to investigate, they found the remains of at least 15 mammoths and a huge house made of bone. Ivory tusks were the roof support, jawbones were the base, and there were even separate rooms. It is likely that this framework was once covered with hides, just like the whalebone huts that would be built by Siberian coastal hunters in the 19th century. Along with amber ornaments, painted drums, and flutes, this home held some of the world’s earliest maps scratched onto bone, leading around lakes, trees, and mountain ranges. 

Image: Momotarou2012, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Phytotherapy is the study of using natural extracts as medicines. The oldest written record of the poppy as medicine is a 5,000-year-old Sumerian clay slab that references over 250 plants. Of course, the consumption and topical use of medicinal plants is as old as humanity itself. Neanderthals chewed chamomile, yarrow, and poplar bark, which contains one of the key ingredients of aspirin. 

Boiled poppy can heal coughs, headaches, burns, scrapes, and stomachaches. Its extract, which comes in a small glass bottle with a disclaimer that the plant has been insufficiently studied by the proper authorities, treats anxiety, insomnia, and pain.

For the Chumash, the healing of one person involved the singing, speaking, dreaming, and dancing of a whole community, so that after the alleviation of spasms, of pain, there came the clarity of symbolism. They also believed that after death, the eyes of the soul were plucked out by ravens, then replaced by poppies to restore sight. 

In Ukraine, which once produced 50% of the USSR’s medicinal plant harvest, the demand for painkillers and sedatives like belladonna, valerian, jimson weed, and wild poppy is still so high that many plants are endangered. Many acres of fields have been destroyed by bombing campaigns, creating plagues of fleeing wildlife and ruining ecosystems for decades to come. Agrarian institutions and farm collectives’ efforts to protect plants have made for strange allies in Rodnovery, or the new pagans, who reconstruct myths of the pre-Orthodox Slavic pantheon and the lifestyles of early agricultural communities.

Ukraine’s southern forest steppe, rich in fresh water and resources, was once Hitler’s fantasy, a location for an Aryan Garden of Eden. This region, ironically, is called Zhytomyr, meaning rye-peace, with peace, world, and Earth all being definitions of mir. This makes me wonder if slavs are the only people ambitious or delusional enough to annually christen thousands of boys world-rulerVladimir

In Christian lore, meanwhile, the martyrs Faith, Hope, and Love were daughters of Saint Sophia; virgins tortured and beheaded for their faith. Though I don’t believe the story as fact, I trust in the selflessness of the women who uphold their cultures and families; who make stories of hell sound like nothing but journey through fact.

Vera was forced to work as a servant in the house of a Nazi general. Her documents locked away, she was forbidden to speak her language. She perfected German while cooking, cleaning, nannying, and gardening. Finally, there came a day when the Soviet troops were marching on the city. The people knew they had to run. By this time, Vera had been with the family for several years, and they were fond of her. When she refused to cross yet another border from Austria into Germany, the general warned her that the only other option was to sit in an Austrian prison and hope to be reassigned. This is what she chose. 

She would successfully emerge from the war into adulthood. She even spoke without malice of the methodical nature of German culture – their bluntness. At least with them, she knew the state of things. Maybe she blamed the system, and not individuals, for what she had gone through. Maybe after living in spaces so charged with violence, she appreciated routine, the way my mother does. Maybe she was just thankful not to be in a death camp.

After being released from jail, Vera was sent to another Nazi-controlled house, where she played her part so well that a talent for (or a default state of) secrecy and disinfection would ripple out from her through the generations. 

One day, inside its hiding place made of polished wood, Vera found the magical object that appears in any good story: a key. I imagine it as cold and shining in her palm before she opened the door or gate of the house. She escaped by moonlight. How many nights she spent walking alone down insurgent roads, how she ate, or where she slept, I cannot know. 

But she must have known that there were friendly soldiers nearby, because she found them. The war raging around them, she married one – a nameless man my grandmother pretends does not exist. When I ask for the story of her mother, she folds into herself to focus. She lifts her chin and begins to skip decades at a time, telling me her favorite parts: playing in the snow while her parents sang in the choir. Harvesting post-war crops. Facts that make her proud; that Vera must have told her, to make her feel, in 1950’s Soviet Ukraine, like the worst of the terror was behind them.  

My family would settle in homes in and around Kharkiv, a city of 1.4 million, where children are now being taught underground, in the metro, under constant threat of supersonic missiles fired at short range. 

We grew flowers, berries, and useful trees. Before the war, my aunt and grandmother would send me pictures of roses, tulips, flowering cherries, and whatever grew of the seeds we would mail them. I’d reply with California’s silver lupines, bush sunflowers, asters, and wild snowdrops.

Each of us our own burning planet, with love, and not rage, as our only infinite resource.

Nature reports that as temperatures and atmospheric carbon dioxide levels rise, the future will bring fewer flowers. Poppies will grow larger and produce more opiates, particularly morphine. 

Not long into the marriage, still conscripted, not yet 30, and already beaten down by war, the soldier who would have been my great-grandfather fired a shot into his own skull. Vera, now an army nurse, was not far away, so with all the well-documented tact of Russian leadership, someone ordered her to clean. Maybe this was to quickly cover up what was seen as an act of treason. Or the army simply had no sanctity to bestow on corpses. 

Maybe Vera considered the act to be part of the promise of marriage. No matter what kind of man he had been, she had known him more intimately than most of us will know our lovers; by body and voice, by values and desires; and finally, by flesh, dark blood, and unsanctioned burial. 

Our ancient siblings too almost never lived to the age of 40. Their days were spent hunting mammals across Europe and Asia, and their graves were beautiful, full of flower petals, berries, and jewelry made from shells and eagle claws. 40,000 years ago, the last of the Neanderthals vanished, leaving us the Earth. Some scientists blame climate change and decreased fertility for their extinction. Homo sapiens also absorbed some of them into our communities. 

In America, I still thrive despite war’s surreal light, safe in the benign glamour of full supermarkets, imported cars, houseplants, digital paychecks, AI, and easy appointments. Safe to ignore anything laying on the street, both sides of my duality stretched thin.

At the San Diego-Mexico border, I greet migrants in their Cyrillic mix. We talk of opportunity.

I see sunflowers sprouting along a sidewalk in Ocean Beach and think of the first poem I loved and memorized: “It occurs to me that I am America. / I am talking to myself again.” 

Art, like diplomacy, will never be enough to save my peoples or nations. “Poetry makes nothing happen,” said W.H. Auden. And yet, “on the day the world ends, / a bee circles a clover, / a fisherman mends a glimmering net,” writes Czeslaw Milosz. 

On my birthday, I loosen rope knots in the sea and wade into its warm break. At home, I press my humming skin to clean linen and consider how love, like art, always merges with its canvas. Beyond thin curtains, the red dusk bilges, slowly silvers. But the low sky never gathers itself down into my arms here. Not the way it did in Ukraine.

Marina Kraiskaya is a Ukrainian-American writer and editor of the journal Bicoastal Review. In 2024, she won the Markham Prize, placed second in the Joy Bale Boone Prize, and was a finalist in the Mississippi Review and Driftwood poetry prizes. Find her writing in Poetry International, The L.A. Review, Southeast Review, Zone 3, The Shore, EcoTheo, Deep Wild, Leavings, and more: