“For there is no truth in their mouth; their heart is destruction, their throat is an open sepulcher.” –Psalms 5:9.
Humming snatches of old songs to keep her spirits up, Nada was furiously scrubbing a kettle in a basin of cold water. She hefted the pot into the light from the small window. The same. She didn’t know why she bothered. No matter how much she scoured the old bronzin, it never came clean. She set it on the floor and glared at it.
(Image from Narodni.net)
Why was she the only one working? Why didn’t her father and sister do their share, especially on this day, Clean Monday, the beginning of Great Lent? It was time to cleanse the cottage, to purify their home.
It is also necessary to clear the conscience, she reminded herself, bowing her head. A time of forgiveness. I will forgive them.
As she was drying the kettle, a knock startled her into dropping it. Dirty water sloshed onto her embroidered apron. May God give you tapeworms! she thought, scowling at the door. But the frown soon faded. Drying herself, she pulled open the door with a smile.
“Joachim!” she said, delighted to see the good-looking boy, standing shyly in the snow, staring at the horns of his opanci shoes, one hand behind his back. “What are you doing here? Shouldn’t you be helping your mother clean the house? Don’t you know what day it is? Good lord, how you’ve grown! Practically a man.”
Nervously, he looked past her into the house. “Can I come in?”
“Of course! Of course! You’ll have to excuse my clothing; I’ve been working all morning. Please,” she said, motioning to the stool by the hearth. “I would offer you sheep’s milk, but we’re fasting. How about some slivovitz? I know it’s early, but what can we do? And it’s been such a long time since you’ve come to visit us, such a long time, Joachim Dragović. Have you forgotten your friends Nada and Stana? Why don’t you visit us any more? Slivovitz? Shall I pour you some slivovitz? A gift from God in these hard times, truly a gift from God.”
Without waiting for a reply, she generously filled two wooden cups with the plum brandy. Joachim climbed onto the unsteady stool, his hand still behind his back. “I don’t need anything,” he muttered. “I just wanted–”
“It’s no bother, Joachim, even in these hard times.” She pushed the cup into his free hand, said “živeli,” and drank deeply. “The slivovitz isn’t as sweet as once it was, I’m afraid. I don’t know why. Thank you for coming, Joachim. We need a little life in this house, God knows. Everyone seems half-alive. Except me, of course. I am the only one who does anything. How’s your mother? God knows I miss mine every day. Every day, even after all these years. Now, she knew how to work, as does your own mother!” She laughed. “Well, how long are you going to hide those flowers, Joachim? Crocuses, aren’t they? My favorite.” She finished her plum brandy and held out a hand.
Reluctantly, he gave them to her. He seemed to be holding his breath. At last he gasped, “Is Stana here?”
“Stana? Would you like me to give Stana the flowers? They are for her, no? How very sweet. No, I’m afraid she’s not here. She’s probably at church, the little saint. Always praying. If I didn’t have to do all the work, I could go more often myself. I could have gone to Forgiveness Vespers last night. As it is . . . well . . . Finished?” she asked, taking the untasted drink from him. “As you can see, I have a lot of work to do. It’s Clean Monday, but this house stinks like the sheep’s pen. Thank you for your visit, Joachim.”
“Could I–?” he started to say, then stood up abruptly, knocking the stool over. “Tell her– Tell her I will come again soon. I would like to ask her something important.”
“Of course, of course,” she said, taking him by the shoulder and leading him to the door. “I’m busy, but I will tell her. I swear it. I’m certain she will be happy, the little saint. May God go with you, Joachim.” Before he could respond, she pushed the door shut, forcing him back over the threshold. Her smile vanished.
(Image from Nothing Against Serbia by Francesca Mitrovic)
When she heard the gate close, she turned and poured his drink into the basin, filled the cup with soapy water, and stuffed the flowers into it. After a few moments of indecision, she hid them behind the woodpile, then crossed to the door of the sleeping room.
“Stana? Stana?” she called. “Little mouse, are you still sleeping?” She pushed the door open. Her sister was slumped on her bed, a woolen blanket around her shoulders, her eyes wide.
“Oh, my little saint, what’s wrong with you? You’ve been acting so strangely lately. It’s been weeks since you left your bed. Weeks! And I have to do everything, everything! We have always been friends. And all these years, I have acted as your mother. Why won’t you talk to me? What is it? Are you ill, honey bee? Please tell me. How can I help you if you don’t tell me what is the matter?
She sat on the wooden frame of the bed. “Stana, what is that smell? Have you–? Look at you, little bird! You have dirtied your bedclothes. You have vomited on your blanket! Oh, little mouse, couldn’t you—? You are sick. God keep us from plague. God preserve us! Do you have a fever, Stana? No, your forehead’s as cold as ice. I demand you tell me what’s wrong. No more secrets in this house!”
When her sister did not respond, Nada pried the blanket from her grip, fighting to get the nightdress off. When at last she freed it from her body, Stana stared in silence at her sister’s swollen belly.
When did it happen? How did it happen? Who was the father? How could Nada have been so blind, so stupid, so slow? What were they going to do? Could they keep it secret? Their lives were ruined, all of them, the family disgraced.
Shame made her cheeks burn. Little saint, she thought and laughed, crumpling up the nightdress in her arms. She squeezed it tightly. My little saint!
(Read Part 2: The Baptism)