The night was alive with the scents of early spring and the sounds of small insects stirring into life.
The girl was sitting very still under the small circle of light coming from an old desk lamp turned towards a square sheet of writing paper.
There was a certain yearning in her silhouette, in the way her skinny arms rested in her lap and her head just tilted to one side. Like she was listening for footsteps to approach.
The angularity of her thin body rested inside a large wooden chair. Its high back carved into intricate grapevines. It was an old-fashioned chair, as were the other items in the small room; a cot, a wardrobe, a small writing desk, and a water pitcher made of heavy green glass her grandmother always claimed was the same colour as her eyes.
Such extravagant statements were not unusual for her grandmother. She was a storyteller, weaving stories like village girls weaved their kerchiefs; with passion and hope.
There were only two memories of her childhood she could remember clearly. The first was of talking to her great-grandmother, which, she was repeatedly told, was impossible since the woman died long before she was born. The second was of her own grandmother sitting in a semi-circle with other village women stripping feathers for duvets and pillows deep into autumn nights.
It was never long before someone would say – ‘Come on Kato … ‘, and with that, her grandmother’s voice would rise above the chatter … ‘Listen then … I will tell you a story.’ Silence fell over the table piled high with snow-white feathers.
Those were her favourite times. Hidden in one of the more obscure corners in a poorly lit kitchen, she would listen with her breath held and her heart open. As she grew up, she started to suspect that her grandmother was well aware of her hiding places but let her hide there anyway. In the world that was soon to become unrecognisable to them both, stories were all her grandmother had to offer in the way of wisdom. The way of warning.
There was the story of a wedding that took place in a nearby village without the bride’s family approval. It ended in shooting and deep roses of blood growing over the wedding dress. There was the story of a young girl that gave birth out of wedlock. In the woods leading to the river. She placed her hand over the newborn’s mouth before the tiny breath could grow stronger. Strong enough to cry. A faint sound of an infant’s wailing has been travelling through the woods every night since. As a round-faced moon glides across the dark, velvety sky.
There were stories of mysterious illnesses and remedies for them, sudden deaths and the greed of those left behind, stories of land burned and stock starved or stolen in times of war.
On some particularly long nights, when the piles of feathers or wool were especially high and the stories especially vivid, she would crawl on all fours across the kitchen floor and towards the adjoining room where her grandfather snored under the pile of blankets or (depending on the state of drunkenness) his long military overcoat he called ‘šinjel’. She would then curl up inside the folds of his large body that always smelled of stale sweat, tobacco and wine and fall into deep slumber almost instantly. In the morning, she would find herself neatly wrapped in blankets and left to sleep in the vast expense of his empty bed.
Those were the easy days of her childhood and first youth, running wild amongst other village children over the stone walls and meadows, through the small woods that began just after the school’s field and finished before the village’s only church and graveyard. Her existence did not extend beyond those signposts – the white stones of the church with its imposing cross and shiny, coloured windows, the blackness of her grandmother’s long skirts shimmering over dewy grass, the smell of bread coming from the kitchen, and a glistening ribbon of the sea only just visible between cliffs rising in the distance.
It was not until the year that brought an unusually cold winter with snow falling as white and thick as milk that she first learned of plans for her father to leave for work in the city. It was not an unusual occurrence in the village. Some of her classmates’ fathers would leave after the harvest was gathered and returned before the first sowing. Their kids would come to school with new shoes that squeaked when they walked and shiny pencil cases that had separate compartments, each stuffed with new, shiny pencils and crayons of every colour imaginable. She was once moved to stuff a few of the especially interesting pencils into her own bag but could not do it for fear of being found out.
While there was no doubt that both her and her two brothers could do with new shoes and their mother with some of those new gadgets that help with washing, their father continued to say how they had everything they could possibly need so long as they had each other. Besides, he could never get a job in the city on account of his father (her grandfather), and so there was no point in asking.
She did not understand, but her confusion was only deepened when no answers to her questions were forthcoming. Which was unusual as her father was always happy to spend lots of time explaining anything she asked of him. Except when it came to questions about her grandfather or some of her grandmother’s stories.
Those questions were met with, depending on the gravity of their subject, a stern warning to never eavesdrop again, a change of subject, or, when lucky, her father would fish a mouth-accordion from his back pocket and play tunes they all knew.
But that year, the snow was so deep that some of the kids could not make it to the school, which grew oddly quiet. Food was getting scarce, and her grandmother would arrange for some task she needed help with more often than usual to invite those she knew were struggling. They would leave with parcels of various shapes and undisclosed contents.
Sometimes, while helping her grandmother tidy the kitchen after the last neighbour left, she would hear the grandma talking to nobody in particular about times when grandfather and his brothers were young, and their family was the first in the village with the best land. They employed everyone who needed work, and nobody went hungry. But all that means nothing now, she would say before sighing and turning around to face her granddaughter as if she had only just noticed her.
The night before her father was to leave, they all sat around the fireplace choking on the smoky aroma of wet logs that sizzled and squealed but would not burn. As neither poking nor turning produced much change, her grandmother said it is a bad omen and went to fetch some dried herbs from the attic to scare evil spirits away. When tossed in the fireplace, they burned with a bright glow and filled the air with the smell of rosemary and myrrh. Then grandfather coughed and shouted that it is high time for the old witch to stop her nonsense.
Her father gathered all three of them and took them to his and their mother’s room, where the bed was piled high with feather duvets and embroidered pillows. They sunk into the soft opulence of their parents’ bed with giggles accessible only to those as young as they were. Their father held them close to him and told them of a big city he was going to work in where houses are so tall that many families can live in them and people travel to and from work in trams run by electricity. He promised to come back soon and asked them what they wanted. Warmth and their father’s voice made her brothers too sleepy before they could count all the things they wanted. She still wanted that pencil case with separate compartments but was too embarrassed to ask for it, so she just hugged her father and let him take her to her own bed.
Before daybreak, her father and a few other men made their way to the schoolmaster’s house. They needed to see the schoolmaster before leaving as he had the names and addresses of people they would need to contact in the city. It was the same each year; if you wanted to work in the city, you needed to be on good terms with the schoolmaster. His first cousin was the village’s only Party official, and while some said that was only because he judged the time to jump sides perfectly, his recommendations were critical. In return for this help, the schoolmaster was obliged to receive gifts from the families of men working in the city; produce, meat and sometimes money.
The schoolmaster tried to help as many as he could and called it progress. Her grandfather cursed and called it a corruption of the worst kind – ‘First you take the man’s land, then you make him a slave to your bloody factory, and he is even to pay you for the privilege … what a fucking progress that is! This is what comes when yesterday’s nobodies are put in power. Before the war, you would not trust that lot with the church money; they would steal from under the altar! They did not have a farthing to share between them, and now they tell me what to do!’ He would then walk outside with more determination than there was still left in his limbs before the grandmother’s usual reprimand to not talk about those things in front of kids could reach him. He knew it well anyway as grandmother never tired of repeating it, especially since they started school. Sometimes grandmother would follow the old man outside and speak to him for a long time while he smoked behind their barn.
As practised as she was in eavesdropping, the girl could never manage to hear much (if anything) of what her grandparents were talking about on those occasions. As soon as she settled into her hiding spot, one of them would call her by name and ask her to come out right away. It was as if they expected her to be there, and on one occasion, while standing limply before them both, her grandfather broke into laughter, which, for him, was most unusual. But that one time, he laughed and laughed until tears ran down his face.
After that, she gave up sneaking on her grandparents and tried to question her mother, who would often let one of them sleep in her bed now that father had gone. But her mother was no help. She really was a dreamer, as everyone said. All that came from her was the well-known tale of their grandfather and his family. How they were the first family in the village before the war but lost everything because the grandfather and his brothers were in the wrong army. How grandfather’s both brothers were shot at the border trying to cross to Austria. How grandfather gave in to grandmother’s pleas not to leave the village but was never the same again. As soon as the last words of the familiar tale left her lips, their mother would start the story about the most beautiful girl in the village who fell in love with a handsome prince, but their love had to be kept secret for a long time, as the girl was from a family of ill repute. It sounded terribly similar to the story of how she met their father, which she told them so many times the girl knew it by heart.
The first money arrived one month after their father left.
It was carefully placed between two sheets of lined writing paper filled with her father’s writing. It was the first time the girl had seen her father’s handwriting; the letters were large and uneven, standing awkwardly next to each other. They reminded her of her brothers’ school work. Over supper, mother read the letter to them all, and they learned that their father misses them terribly, that work is not too hard, and the pay is good, which means he will return soon. Meanwhile, they are to be good and respectful, work hard at school and home so that he can be proud of them when they come to visit him in the city. It would be the longest letter they would ever receive from their father.
As the shy sun of an early spring appeared, the village was awakening to the ordinary rhythm of seasons. Spring is a time when many hands are needed to stir the land from the long winter’s slumber to make it rich and fertile again. It also meant the return of the men from the city’s factories was imminent.
Houses were opened to air and heavy rugs and blankets taken out to bask in the sunshine. Some houses were getting painted, and their grandmother was entertaining the same idea, albeit not with much enthusiasm. She was never very fond of work that only added to appearances. As far as grandmother was concerned, the only things worth working for are those that matter, and the colour of one’s house was not one of them. Still, she gave in when their mother asked for her room to be painted and new curtains (with lace) sewn for the windows. Unlike the grandmother, their mother was convinced that the colour of one’s marital bedroom walls and the type of curtains hanging on the windows are things that matter. It was one of the many things their mother felt very differently about compared to their grandmother.
After the room was painted and the newly sawn curtains hung, the waiting began.
Their mother would stop whatever she was doing and run towards the road at the sound of any form of transportation approaching; motorcycle, horse-cart, tractor. But it would always be somebody else’s husband returning, or the postman, or a group of villagers passing on their way to the fields.
It was the beginning of summer when a parcel arrived.
The grandmother received it and placed it in the middle of the bed in their mother’s room before fetching her. Their mother ran into the bedroom and hugged the parcel close to her chest, stroking its rough brown paper before opening it. Inside she found three pair of kids’ shoes, bolts of multicoloured fabric, a carton of filter cigarettes, a large tin of roasted coffee beans, and an envelope.
This time she did not wait for supper or call the kids before opening the envelope. Banknotes spilt from it first. There were more of them than before. A half-page letter amongst them. It told about the factory’s recent new order, a promotion promised if he stays to help complete the order on time, the money it would mean. Much better money than what they could ever hope to earn from the land. In any event, there is enough money in the envelope to pay day-labourers to work their fields. He loves them all very much and will come to visit them all soon. ‘Visit’ replaced ‘Return’.
Their mother took the gifts and handed them to those they were meant for.
Grandmother fetched her old brass coffee grinder from behind the stove, filled it with beans and started to turn the handle. The aroma of freshly ground coffee filled their kitchen. She then reached for the long handle of a round coffee pot that looked like it was moulded from the same brass as the coffee grinder and filled it with water before placing it on the stove corner where it would start boiling with just the right speed. As soon as the water boiled, she took it off the stove and slowly stirred two teaspoons (one for each tiny cup) of freshly ground coffee in it. She then placed the pot back on the stove to let it rise twice (resting it for a few seconds after each rise) before leaving it to its final rest.
It was the well-practised ritual and the one that usually drew all three kids to their grandmother waiting for her to dispense the usual treat – a sparkling white sugar cube quickly dipped into coffee before being popped into their mouths.
Only this time, they were too busy with their new shoes to notice that coffee has been made.
Their mother was sitting on a low stool near the window, stroking the fabric that came in the parcel, when grandmother approached carrying a round tray holding the coffee pot, two tiny cups and a sugar bowl. Both women sipped their coffee with the slowness of those who can only rarely savour it. There was also another reason for this deliberate slowness. Once all the liquid is consumed, each woman will carefully swirl the thick, dark residue around inside her cup and then turn the cup upside-down in one swift, fluid move, following the order of ancient rules. After several minutes the cups would be ready for ‘reading.’
Their grandmother was well-known for her abilities to read what fortunes and misfortunes are revealed in coffee. Women would come from distant villages to have their readings, albeit always disguised as having some other task to do. If the coffee was not clear, there were other methods, but those were rarely practised as they needed more time and secrecy.
It was impossible to understand anything of what her mother and grandmother whispered to each other with their heads so close that they were almost touching, deep in concentration over the insides of two cups that looked like somebody drew very delicate and very elaborate roads in them. Maps of unknown.
Whatever those deliberations were, they were interrupted by grandfathers’ cough and her brothers’ angry voices that sounded like a beginning of a fight over whose shoes were better.
Spring turned into a long, dry summer and fears of drought reappeared until one late summer evening lightning cut through heaviness and fat drops of rain bounced over the dusty roads. When she was only a little girl, grandfather taught her a song to sing when thunder and lightning frightened her. It was about a gipsy girl running back home before the storm, managing to reach it just in time. The words and melody were both funny and soothing.
As summer started to ripen into early autumn, their mother took to visiting her sister, who was married to a farrier in the next village. They had a brood of little kids whose faces were always smeared with soot and occasionally snot. At first, those visits were explained by their aunt’s ever-present need for help and their own mother’s loneliness on account of her absent husband, but soon they become too frequent and lasted too long for either of those explanations.
Rumours started to circulate that their mother was returning to her old ways when she was an unmarried girl – floating inside her dreams which were only occasionally and only faintly connected to the world everyone else dwells in.
In her youth, flocks of young, handsome men would follow her in her wanderings over meadows and marshes. Some said she was simply a slut, just prettier than most. The others claimed she felt what the rest could not, and so her ways were mysterious. Either way, everyone agreed she was a dreamer, a trait inflicted on all the women of her family. It was not a small surprise when the only son of the village’s only ‘kulak’ (wealthy peasant) married her. But then the war changed everything.
When their mother did not return home after a week at her sister’s, the grandmother went to fetch her.
She harnessed their old horse (to think they had so many before the Communists came) and left immediately after breakfast. The girl desperately wanted to go and almost succeeded in jumping onto the moving cart, but grandmother stopped the horse and called the girl to her: ‘Listen, I need you to stay here to look after your brothers and grandfather. I am relying on you.’ The girl felt both proud of her importance and angry at her mother for needing to be fetched home. They had more than enough embarrassment to deal with already, with grandfather clinging onto his old ways and their father not coming home as other village men do.
The cart returned just before dusk, and their grandmother helped their mother off it before taking the horse to rest.
They did not know what to do at first, seeing their mother’s face was smeared with tears, but when she dropped to her knees and opened her arms wide, all three of them ran to her at once. They followed her into her bedroom. She tucked them all in her bed and told them a long story about beautiful river fairies who dress in the most delicate spring blossoms and glide over the water’s surface until young boatmen draw them to their boats where they keep them in the most splendid rooms gilded with rose gold and shimmering silver where they love them until the end of time.
Her brothers were fast asleep, but the girl wanted to ask her mother where she has seen such rooms. When she raised her eyes, she saw her mother’s face illuminated with a glow of such intensity that she said nothing.
No new parcels arrived from their father that autumn. Paid workers did the best job they knew how, and their barn was well stocked.
As autumn’s crispness turned into the first frosts, their grandfather’s cough became fiercer. Nights were the worst. The old man’s body would shake violently, and his eyes bulged from their sockets with pain and horror. Rivulets of sweat appeared on his forehead and travelled down in neat rows before mixing with tears he could not feel.
Grandmother gathered the most healing of her herbs. She then soaked and steamed them until the last precious drop of their goodness has been extracted into grassy smelling teas and potions that required incoherent prayers to be whispered and the sign of the cross made over them before they could be used to bath old man’s chest and temples.
But nothing seemed to help for long.
Sometimes, after being washed and warmed with hot towels, the grandfather managed a few hours sleep only to awake suddenly crying names they never heard before and trying to rise from the bed shouting commands to troops nobody but him could see. A few village women would come to sit with grandmother and exchange knowing looks and quickly cross themselves. It was just like they feared – he was back there in that winter of 1943; God help him.
Days followed each other like defeated soldiers, staggering between the old man’s illness and their mother’s silent disappearances.
She took to visiting the schoolmaster wanting to know if he has any news of her husband.
The schoolmaster assured their mother that the news will be coming soon. He offered to arrange for her and one of the kids, perhaps the oldest, the girl, to visit their man in the city. He is doing very well there, and a director of the factory has arranged for him to attend night classes after work. In no time, he will become qualified and take on important, well-paid jobs. Of course, it remains most unfortunate that the old man kept hanging around, as obstinate as ever, refusing to accept what is clear for all to see! And all have seen it but for that old fool, not letting go of his reactionary ways! Like there is anything he, or anyone for that matter, can do about it! No, they cannot! It is the march of progress, and it cannot, will not, be stopped!
The schoolmaster could never help himself; his zeal for progress was such that he was compelled to launch into feverish speeches even when his audience gazed at the window and drew snowflake-like shapes on their misty panes, as their mother did. Still, the schoolmaster was hoping that the woman would pass at least some of his words to her mother in law (the old witch), and from there, they would reach the old fool whose time to join his dead battalion has well and truly arrived. After all he (the schoolmaster) and his family have done to join in with the march of progress, the whole village remains backwaters because of that stubborn old man!
It was usually at this point that the schoolmaster would wipe his sizable mouth and replenish his and their mother’s glass with silky, sweet wine he kept for special occasions and did not allow even his wife (a thin woman with mousy hair and claw-like hands) to know where it was hidden.
Their mother would sip the wine and smile at the schoolmaster. The same smile that would come to her quite naturally and almost unknowingly ever since she saw a passion in men’s eyes for the first time as a girl of thirteen. There was nothing she could do about it while her limbs grew heavy and warm.
Winter started with sleety rains, dirt and mould. Everything seemed gleaming with mist and smelling of decay.
Grandmother tried to talk to grandfather about going to the hospital, but that brought such horror to his face that she abandoned the subject altogether. She continued to prepare herbs for him during the day and watch over him during the night. Sometimes, when he was a little bit calmer, she would let the girl come in and sit on the edge of his bed or gently stroke his large forehead that felt like glass under the girl’s warm, dry hand. It was in those moments that the girl felt more than understood that there was something heavy and secretive, some knowledge that is equally limiting and liberating, that had been silently passed to her from her grandparents.
The girl and her grandmother were too busy with the grandfather’s illness, housekeeping, and looking over her two younger brothers to pay much attention to their mother’s whereabouts or the ever-increasing rumours.
Until her younger brother came home from school with a cut lip and a large bruise over his left eye. He cried from the pain and humiliation of not being able to defend himself and, even more importantly, his family. He would not say a word to either his sister or grandmother, and it was not until their mother came home that he cried it all out while hiding inside his mother’s arms.
Kids teased him at school, but that was nothing new. Either it was that their father is never coming back as he already has a new wife in the city, or that their grandfather is an enemy of people who should rot in jail, or that their grandmother is a witch who can cast spells. Only this time, it was worse. Much worse.
They had dragged him to the corner of the schoolyard where the school master’s son usually sits quietly eating his solitary lunch. The schoolmaster’s son is odd. He dribbles from the corner of his mouth, and you can hardly understand what he is saying. Nobody plays with him unless made to do so by the teachers. This time they forced her brother to hold hands with the schoolmaster’s boy and then have them embrace and kiss each other once on each cheek. They all cheered then and called them true brothers.
Her brother was sickened by the schoolmaster’s son’s hand in his and the wide grin on the boy’s flat face smiling at him like they had just become best friends.
A tall, gangly youth leaned into his face and mocked him to go and ask his mother when she is gonna pop the schoolmaster’s bastard, so he will be a real brother to the idiot over there. Proper little family. If it is a girl, she can be a slut together with his sister and mother!
At the mention of his family, her brother threw his whole body into the older boy. It was so unexpected that it knocked the older boy down. But only for a moment. The older boy stood up and started to dust himself off with the deliberate slowness of a showman. He then proceeded to punch and kick the boy until the school bell rang.
Exhausted with the effort of recounting his ordeal, the boy let his grandmother take him from his mother’s arms to wash him and put him to bed.
The girl watched her grandmother’s back until it disappeared into the boys’ room, then she continued to stare into the darkness left behind. She would not move for fear of catching a glance of her mother. If asked, she would not be able to name any of the feelings that were stirring inside her chest, which started to feel like it was shrinking so that even her own breath was too much for it.
When the grandmother returned to the kitchen, she ordered them both to bed as there was nothing more they could do that night. Her mother left for her room downcast but clearly relieved to be out of the way. The girl, however, found that she could not move her limbs. Her breathing was becoming even harder, and tiny drops of sweat appeared above her upper lip.
All through the night, the grandmother moved silently between her dying husband and her petrified granddaughter. She covered the old man’s chest with steaming hot poultices and massaged her granddaughter’s stiffened limbs with oils; she mixed herself until they softened and came to life again. She whispered words of love, forgiveness and hope to each of them as she judged were needed.
In the pale light of dawn, as silent as a sentry on a deathwatch, grandmother rose from her chair next to the sick man’s bed and held a small mirror over his mouth. She then gently closed her husband’s eyes, placed a gold coin on each closed lid, kissed his forehead and crossed herself. She thought of putting a small wooden cross between his clasped hands as it was their custom but decided not to. You never know who is watching; besides, the old man would not let a priest anywhere near him ever since he first returned from the front.
In the days that followed, grandfather was laid to rest with as little fuss as possible. When two of his old soldier comrades, each looking older and shabbier than the other, turned up for the funeral, grandmother stood between them and made sure that the songs they were intent on singing came out as a low hum only – old men’s garbled nonsense nobody pays attention to.
Inside the coffin, the old man lay in his cheap civilian suit, the one he bought when, in the early days, he would still visit offices and courts and commissariats to try and explain how it all happened, but then soon abandoned it all as a waste of time.
Inside the jacket’s small inner pocket cut to sit next to her man’s heart, the grandmother tucked a tiny parcel, his Iron Cross and their wedding rings, closely wrapped inside a piece of rich lace cut from her old bridal veil.
The thick dirt thundered heavily against the coffin’s wooden lid.
A few of the old women crossed themselves and proceeded to whisper prayers into their chins. Men stared into the distance, expecting to see the grandfather riding one of his stallions, cracking his whip high in the air for fun, laughing when the young girls jumped, as he did in his youth.
Standing next to her mother and holding her older brother’s hand tightly in hers, the girl felt hot tears streaming down her face.
When the thin drizzle started to settle over the freshly filled grave, they all moved to leave.
Slowly, in groups of two or three, they reached their home where a long table was piled with food and drink. People ate and drank and talked. Mostly talked.
The girl sat on the low stool under the window and listened.
When the two old soldiers become rowdy and loud with drink, as grandmother knew they would, she filled their glasses and asked them to scull it down one last time for their old commander and then go to their beds quietly. They did.
The following day all manner of cleaning and tidying commenced.
Every scrap of dirt and decay was to be eradicated, and the house readied for what grandmother would not explain beyond ‘it is what needed to be done long ago.’ The yard and barn and whatever was left of the tools were to receive the same treatment as soon as the weather becomes warmer. She kept them busy for the whole morning. The girl was assigned to supervising her brothers and helping them clean their bedroom, a task she thought both terribly annoying and pointless since boys were incapable of either cleaning anything or keeping it clean. Between their bickering and her shouting, she did not notice when her grandmother took their mother by the elbow and walked with her outside their gate.
They returned with a lilac sky behind them, grandmother supporting their mother, who walked unusually slowly and carefully like she was returning home weary from some exceptionally exhausting task. In that convalescent manner, grandmother lead their mother to her bedroom and lay her down gently, making sure to tuck her legs inside the covers and brush her hair away from her closed eyes.
She then turned to shoo them away and closed the bedroom door.
The girl was ordered to stir the fire inside the stove and warm up the stew for the boys’ dinner, which she decided not to do as she was angry for being treated like a little kid who couldn’t understand anything. Her chest was heaving like she was short of air, and tears were welling inside her eyes.
She could feel movements and shifts of invisible destinies all around her. Inside her. Almost within her comprehension but not yet.
And still, her grandmother behaved like warming up the stew and cutting large wedges from round cornbread is all that matters! The girl ran outside to cry bitter tears of those whose feelings run them ragged before they learn what to do with them.
Grandmother fed the boys and put them to bed. She then sang to them one of their favourite songs, and their sleep came fast and deep.
When she returned to the kitchen, the girl was warming her hands over the stove and trying to hide the peculiar hiccupping she always got when unable to stop crying. Grandmother rubbed the spot between the shoulder blades she knew would ease the hiccuping, then steered the girl towards the table. They ate in silence, the girl trying not to look at her grandmother for fear of starting to cry again and because she was embarrassed for being so hungry.
Once fed, they tidied the table and kitchen together as they often did. Then grandmother took two glasses, an almost finished bottle of wine left from the funeral and poured them both a drink, albeit a small one for the girl. It was the first time the girl was offered a glass of wine, and she took it as a sign that, at long last, she will no longer be treated like a dumb kid.
Her grandmother smiled at her and nudged her to click her glass with hers. She laughed at that as she remembered grandfather doing the same with their father. She hated herself for crying again. But grandmother hugged her tightly, let her cry for a while, and then told her a funny story that made her laugh. It was an old trick of grandmother’s – she would always make you laugh when you are most sad. She would sometimes have mispronounced the words on purpose and kept on doing it no matter how many times they tried to correct her, just to keep them laughing.
She was laughing now, but tears still lingered in the corner of her mouth and her eyes that sparkled like fireflies on summer nights.
And then (finally) her grandmother asked her – ‘What is troubling you?’
‘Is it true about mother?’
‘What about her?’
‘That she is pregnant to the schoolmaster?’
The grandmother took a sip of wine from the glass, then held the girl’s eye in hers.
‘Would you really believe something like that?’
The girl thought for a moment. She wanted to say ‘Yes’. But then she felt that was not the right answer. So she said ‘No’ and, to be sure, added ‘No, I would not believe it.’
‘There you have it then.’
‘Is there anything else?’
‘OK, let’s hear it.’
‘Is mother sick then?’
‘Sick. Why would she be sick?’
‘You left home without telling me where you are going and when you came back, she looked sick. She walked slowly, and you had to help her to bed.‘
‘Oh, that. Nothing really. I did not have time to tell you, but that woman with a crippled son was calling for help. Her son had fallen again, and she needed help to move him. Your mother and I rushed over to hers. Once we finished, she insisted we had a drink with her. It was one of her own concoctions and made your mother’s stomach upset. She will be as good as new tomorrow.’
It made sense. The girl knew the woman with the disabled son who often needed help when the rest of her household was away. She was also notorious for her homemade liqueurs and health tonics which she was fond of pressing upon friends and neighbours, most of which ended up quietly tipped out.
Still, there was something, some unknown, unrecognisable shadow that was tugging at the girl’s mind. Some tiny, not fully formed hand, floating like a jellyfish inside a jar that wanted to connect with the girl. But it never could.
Then her grandmother said that, if this is all, drink up and let’s go to her bedroom so she can write a letter to her father. It is high time for it, she said.
The girl wanted to ask grandmother whether it is true what she heard some people were saying after the grandfather’s funeral, but she did not know how to start, so she just sat there and played with her almost empty glass.
‘What is it now?’
‘I heard some people … ‘
‘After the funeral … they were saying … ‘
But it was too much for the girl.
She just could not bring herself to ask whether it is true what they were saying. That grandmother fed the old man some of her secret herbs to make him leave this world a little bit quicker than he otherwise would so that her son can come home to his family before it becomes too late.
Grandmother took the glass from her hand and shook her slightly.
She told the girl that people always talk, mostly rubbish, especially at funerals and weddings, when they have few drinks and are well fed and idle. Best to pay no attention to any of it and just mind one’s own business. Besides, it was getting late, and she really needed her to write that letter. Which was the most important thing, really. Because they must let her father know what had happened. That his father had died. He will come home, and they will get rid of that land the grandfather insisted on holding on to. It brought nothing but trouble. They can take it to their collective farms and cooperatives for all the good it would do them.
Once that is done, they are all going to the city. To live in one of those nice, new places with schools and shops and playgrounds around. Not far from her father’s work. To live like a family. Their mother would be happy again. Like she used to be. There are plenty of things for young women in those new places.
They went to the girl’s bedroom where the light was dancing on the heavy, green glass of a water-pitcher.
The air was fresh and crisp with the change of season.
The girl took one of her school notebooks and carefully tore a page from the middle of it, so it looked neat and tidy. It was a clean square of lined writing paper.
She wrote the name of their village and date in the upper right corner as neatly as she could, then ‘Dear Father’ in the middle of the page. Waiting for the grandmother to start dictating.
Born in Croatia, Daniela started writing as a student and continued until she moved to New Zealand in the 1990s as her country was devastated by civil war.
With few possessions and even fewer English words, it was not until the late 2000s that she found the courage to pen her first stories in English.
In 2018 Daniela’s short story ‘Taxi Driver’ was published in Mindfood.
More details are available at danieladragas.com