(For the first part of this story, “The Dirty Pot,” click here.)
Stana stayed in bed as her belly grew through Lent and Easter and Pentecost and the hot summer months.
Nada told no one and made her father swear secrecy, but he was going out drinking more often, so he must have let the shameful secret slip. At first Nada thought she was imagining it, but she eventually had to accept that most villagers wouldn’t greet her on the road or in the market. Even neighbors hurried away. They would not answer her queries about their children and grandparents. They would not purchase her embroidered goods, sheep’s milk, or brown eggs. She had become invisible, like a ghost among the living.
Although they would not speak to her, she could hear them whispering. She could even hear them whispering when they were far down the road. Late at night, over her father’s snoring, she could still hear them whispering.
But Stana, Stana, she made no sound at all.
* * *
One evening Nada saw Joachim coming up the road. He turned immediately, hurrying across the fallow field. She followed his shrinking figure with curses: “May God damn you to hell for all eternity, Joachim Dragović! You have ruined my sister! Damn you! You have shamed my family! Damn you! May God break your leg so that it heals crookedly! May you die in hunger! May you die in shame, like a dog by the side of the road! May plague strike you!”
Miliza, the widow who lived down the road, came out of her cottage to see what was the matter. Nada didn’t care. She wanted everyone to know who was to blame.
“May tapeworms come out of your anus and enter your mouth! May your pevac wither! May your pevac dry up and fall off your body! May cattle trample it! May pigs eat it! May they shit it out and roll in it!”
Miliza made the sign against the evil eye and closed the door. Joachim disappeared into the wood, and still Nada screamed across the evening: “May a dog fuck your mother! May a pig fuck your mother! May God fuck you! May the son fuck you! May the holy spirit fuck you! May Saint Sava shit in your mouth! Damn you, Joachim Dragović! Damn you! Damn you! Damn you!”
She shouted until she was hoarse, light-headed, and curiously happy.
* * *
Nada did not know when the baby was due, but it lingered longer than she felt was healthy. It seemed to fear the outside world.
At last one morning before dawn in early September, Nada and her father, stinking of plum brandy, brought the withered child into the world.
Stana recoiled from the creature, so skinny it looked like an old man: bald, toothless, and wrinkled. She would not feed it on her breast. She would not give it a name. She did nothing but sit in her bed with the stained blanket wrapped around her.
Nada, throwing bitter glances at her sister, cared for the creature. Soaking the corner of a brown rag in sheep’s milk, she fed it. She rocked it, bounced it, jostled it, and sang “Oh, Morava!”
It cried and cried and cried and cried day and night and night and day until it had no energy left and its skin was pasty and it seemed about to die.
Their father ignored it, his daughters, and the farm, leaving early in the morning and stumbling home after dark. He did not speak to them. He did not look at them. He climbed into bed fully clothed and turned his face to the wall.
Nada did what she could for the child, her sister, her father, the cottage, the animals, and the fields, some of which still needed harvesting, but the more she did, the more needed to be done. The farm itself was dying.
* * *
One Monday, nearly two months after the child was born, as green things were dying, the dreaded day arrived. Nada was cleaning the chicken coop when she saw the stiff black hat of the priest rise over the hill, his gray beard and his black robes swaying in the autumn wind. Behind him came his son and two daughters.
He has come at last, Nada thought, brushing dirty straw from her apron. He has come to tell us we are excommunicated. But I am innocent. I have done nothing. There is no sin on me. I am innocent.
As he entered the gate, she touched the ground with her right hand, then put her right hand over the left, palms upward. “Bless you, father.”
The priest blessed her, and she kissed his hand. “Nada, my Nada, how are you, my child?”
She didn’t know how to respond.
“The ways of the world are hard, Nada, but God is kind. It has been a long time since I have seen you at the Divine Liturgy. Please know that you are welcome. May I see Stana and the boy?”
“Oh no,” she said, “no, we are not ready to greet such a distinguished visitor. Our house is filthy, and Stana . . . I am afraid Stana is still in bed in her nightdress. She does nothing.”
He waved this away, and she followed him to the bedroom door. As he was about to knock, Nada yelled, “Stana! Stana! Prepare yourself. Father Zoric is here to see you. Cover yourself up, you shameless girl. Cover yourself up! He is here! He is here!”
The priest looked back at her in surprise. After a moment, he said, “While we are in here, give my children tasks. They will help you with the house and farm while I speak to Stana. I will speak to her alone, please.”
* * *
Nada worked with the priest’s children for a while, but the help was such a relief that she sat on the stool to catch her breath. Until then, she hadn’t realized how tired she was. Every muscle ached; her heart was heavy, her breath slow.
I am a woman now, she thought bitterly, watching them work. But they are children; they are still children. How I wish I could be as happy!
The priest emerged with a worried look. He glanced around, as if looking for someone. What he said surprised Nada: “I have agreed to exorcize and baptize the child this Sunday, but you must find a godfather by that time, and the child must have a name.”
“A godfather?” she laughed. “Who will be godfather to that bastard?”
The priest leaned in close. “Our God is a merciful God, Nada, a forgiving God. Be like him. We are all stained with original sin. Be kind to the child. The child is not to blame.” The emotion in his voice was so strong that Nada pulled back in surprise. “Be kind to your sister too, Nada. Please, my child. She is not to blame.”
She eyed him suspiciously. Why is he so affected? Never have I seen him like this before.
He turned from her and called his children. They gratefully abandoned their tasks, dropping the tools in the dirt.
Nada watched the priest’s black robes sweeping over the hill. So there will be no excommunication, not even for Stana. The child will be baptized. But why was Father Zoric so upset? It is strange, very strange.
* * *
“What did you tell the priest?” she demanded. “Why does the priest say you are not to blame? Who is the father, you little saint? Stana, speak to me! I am your sister! I am practically your mother. Tell me what you told the priest or I will give you nothing to eat.”
Stana looked up, and slowly, very slowly, like the ice melting on the Morava River, she began to smile. “I am fasting anyway, Nada, but I don’t know what good it can do. The priest can do nothing. He cannot save us. But I know how to make everything right.”
“What do you mean, Stana? What can you do that the priest cannot? What you are saying is blasphemy. It is only through the intervention of God’s servants that we may be saved. Did you confess? What did you say?”
Stana let the blanket fall, exposing her nightdress, wet with wasted milk. She held out her thin arms. “Let me see my boy. Let me hold him. Please, I want to see my child.” Reluctantly, Nada picked up the sleeping babe out of the handmade cradle, the same cradle that had held both Stana and herself, and handed him to her.
The baby awoke but did not have the strength to cry; his breath rattled in his throat. Stana opened her dress and gave him a teat, a smile on her face as benevolent as that of Mary in the icons of the church. At first the child did not react, but finally it began to suck.
“Ouch!” Stana said happily. “He bites!”
Nada watched her quietly. “That is what children do. They bite their mothers.”
Stana laughed. “Oh Nada, my sister, my dear sister, you have tried so hard. I am grateful, believe me. I am grateful for all you’ve done for me and . . . Petar. His name will be Petar. He will be baptized. Thank you, Nada. Even when you have been hard on me, you have taken care of me, and you have taken care of Petar, and I am grateful, Nada. Now let me nurse my child in peace. Let me give my baby milk. Please, Nada.”
* * *
That Saturday evening, after the Nativity fast had begun, she heard a rustling sound and the murmur of hushed voices coming over the hill.
What did these people want? She set aside the embroidered skirt she was making and looked back into the house. Her father was out drinking again, and Stana had taken her baby for a walk. The house was empty, but it did not seem so dark anymore. In the last few days, smiles and laughter had returned to the farm. Stana had come alive again, caring for her child with the sweetest devotion. The child was already growing fatter, losing the look of an old man. He had even begun to smile, his little fists swinging dangerously through the air.
What did these people want with her family? Why wouldn’t they leave them alone to bear their crosses as best they could?
As they grew nearer, Nada saw that they were carrying a body, the body of a thin girl. The widow Miliza was holding a tiny bundle of wet linen in her arms.
“No,” Nada whispered, shaking her head. “No, no, no.”
She ran to her sister and grabbed her body. The villagers released her, and she sagged in Nada’s arms. “What happened? What have you done to her? You have killed her! You hard-hearted bastards have killed her! Are you happy now? Are you content? Have you had your revenge on my family?”
The widow shook her head. “Nada, she drowned her baby and herself this afternoon. In the Morava River. Rade found their bodies downstream. Now she is truly damned. And the baby will never be baptized. I am sorry, Nada. I am truly sorry.”
“You! You have killed her! You are responsible. All of you and your cold, unforgiving hearts. May God punish you for your cruelty! May he curse you with plague! And that fiend Joachim! Where is he? Is he among you? Why is he ashamed to show his face? Why, I ask you? Why isn’t he carrying the body of the girl he murdered? Why didn’t he drown himself with his lover and his bastard?”
The villagers picked up Stana’s limbs again and pulled the limp girl from Nada’s arms. She placed herself in front of them and held out her arms. “No! You will not bring their bodies into my house! They are polluted! They are foul! You will not contaminate my home! You will not pass this threshold with their bodies.”
“But where, Nada, where should we put them?” Rade, the young servant of the hadnack, the military administrator, said, “We cannot simply lay their bodies in the field for the dogs, can we? Where else can we lay them?”
“Have mercy! Please, Nada,” Miliza begged. “Have mercy on your sister. Have mercy on the child. Have mercy on us. We don’t know what else to do. We don’t know where to take them.”
She did not say yes; she did not say no. They pushed passed her and laid the dripping girl and the wet bundle of linen on Nada’s bed. On her own bed! Nada was so shocked that she couldn’t speak. They turned to look at her as if they expected her to say something, but what could she say?
“I . . . must . . . I must empty the water from every cup, jar and basin. Yes, everything must be emptied. I must cover the mirror so their spirits do not see their own reflections and get trapped here in this house. Trapped! Open the windows so they can find their way out. Oh God, open the shutters! Quickly, open the shutters! Let their spirits out! Oh, please God, let them out!”
But the villagers shook their heads and filed out quietly.
Eventually, Nada did everything herself. As usual, as always, she was the one responsible, yes, the one responsible. She was the one who had to carry the whole dead weight of the whole damn world.
When she had opened the windows and covered the tarnished brass mirror and emptied every vessel and checked the house twice and checked it again, she dropped down in the dirt and watched the fire die.
* * *
Much later, her father staggered home. He took the news calmly, nodding once, then picked up a hoe. They buried them on the far side of the fence. There would be no consecrated ground for a suicide and an unbaptized babe.
(Part 3: The Visitation)