A legacy of unremoved shoes
The day had begun to shorten, the sun slipping behind the mountains of Sopot. Yet, the mourners would not leave. To one side, Djordje and Jovana held hands, forgotten by all.
The previous year, they’d lost their father and their lives had suddenly shrunk to the perimeters of their home. In a culture where the whole village was extended family, where there were no differences between sibling and cousin, their mother had begged to differ. And she had made enemies, uncles and aunts only tolerating the family because of Bojan’s goodness.
When Bojan died, all pretenses of kindness died. The village could now officially ignore Dejana and her children.
Then three months ago, a strange illness took Dejana. It wasted her body, loosed her tongue. Djordje tended her as best as he could, but there is only so much a ten-year-old boy can do. Sometimes, he was assisted by someone bathed afresh in the milk of human kindness. Mostly, he had no help.
Then she died.
That she had been hugely disliked did not discourage the mourners from coming, did not stop them from spreading salads and roasted meats around the gravestone.
Djordje stared at the several dishes of cevapcici lining his mother’s eternal bedplace and felt his stomach rumble. All through his mother’s sickness, he and his sister lived solely on proja and kajmak, the most basic Serbian staples. Delicacies like cevapcici were another matter entirely.
He felt a squeeze, turned to face Jovana who was only six, and was jolted by the haggardness of her face. She looked not much different from their mother before she died.
“Jovanka,” He said her pet name almost reverently, “Are you okay?”
She chewed at a corner of her lip, the way she was wont to do at difficult times. Then she whispered the question that had become lodged in her heart since their Ma was lowered into the ground. “Who will take care of us now?”
Reality hit Djordje, settled like bile in his stomach. For want of an answer, he echoed Jovana’s action, biting his lips until he felt the metallic taste of blood.
Beside them, two women were talking in earnest, both dressed in the traditional outfit of plain blouse, long black skirt, and head scarf.
“You know what I hated most about her. She never removed her shoes when she came to our house.”
“And she never chose a kum and kuma for her children. How on earth?”
Djordje felt his intestines tighten, pulling his stomach into the worst possible ache. Not for the first time in his life, he wished his mother had been friendlier, more invested in the customs of their people.
He took a deep breath, ran his hand over his sister’s tresses, and stood. There was no sense in prolonging the inevitable.
Their uncle Andrija was standing at a far corner of the graveyard, sipping from a bottle of brandy. He was the greediest of their relatives, hence the easiest.
Djordje sank low to his feet, held onto his uncle’s trousers and said the words he had rehearsed over and over again.
“Please let us come and live with you. You can have the house and Pa’s farmland.” When he squeezed his eyes, the required amount of tears leaked out. Inside him, his heart groaned and shattered into a million pieces.
Andrija settled his face into a mixture of scorn and pity, then broke out into a large smile. “Of course, of course.”
His mission accomplished, Djordje went back to his sister and was surprised to find himself crying. Real tears this time. Tears for his gentle father whose only mistake in life was to marry a bickerer, tears for his mother whose spirit had finally been broken at the end, tears for his orphaned sister, and finally tears for himself. For having to grow up before his time, for losing his childhood so soon, so brutally.
He slipped his hand into his sister’s and answered her question, “We’ll stay with Uncle Andrija, and I’ll take care of you no matter what.”
Cevapcici - Highly-spiced meat patties
Proja - Cornbread
Kajmak – A kind of diary spread
Kum - Godfather
Kuma - Godmother
* Serbia is a landlocked territory in the Balkan Peninsula of Eastern Europe.
Jer 31:29 - When that time comes, people will no longer say, ‘The parents have eaten sour grapes, but the children’s teeth have grown numb.’
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