The Days... Content
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The Days of Unleavened Bread, Chapter 14

It was late autumn and it was cold. In the garden you could see small cabbage heads, the stunted ones that had been left behind, and cabbage stalks where the heads had been cut off, covered with tiny white crystals of frost. The leaves on the tomato plants were withered and brown, and the stalks hung limply from their bindings made of old rags.
.... The dusty village lane climbed gently up the slope where the cemetery was. Every time I went into the cemetery, my gaze fell on a mound overgrown with grass, with a rusty iron cross, from which the inscription was missing. This was the grave of Yanko, a jolly chap, and his unusual death was still often talked about:
.... On Saturday evenings during the summer, when it's too hot indoors to go to bed early, before the house walls cool down a little, young men and girls would gather in the inn yard. Someone would bring an accordion, and the young people would hang around until after midnight. The girls would show off their new clothes, while the young men, in the pauses between two dances, would tell stories, bragging about their strength and courage.
.... "Actions speak louder than words," Yanko spoke up cheerfully. He was a large young man dressed in wide white trousers of home-made linen and a long, loose white shirt, over which he wore a little black waistcoat, and a black hat with a ribbon in the Croatian colours.
.... Yanko puffed out his chest and said that he would give a demijohn of the best wine to anyone who brought a cross from the cemetery and took it back where it came from. Everyone was silent, no-one volunteered to go, and then little Stevo, a skinny youth, but lively as a cricket, who never minced his words, said,
.... "Come on, Yanko, let's see you in action."
.... Everyone stared. The girls stopped chatting and waited to hear what Yanko would say. It would be a disgrace for him to refuse his own challenge. He squirmed a little, looked right and left, saw the girls staring at him, realized there was nothing for it, and the bet was on.
.... Yanko set off towards the cemetery, and you could see he was keyed up. The young people waited impatiently, and no-one danced. The cemetery had always been a spooky place, and stories about the ghosts that haunted it had been told since time immemorial.
.... After a while they could make out a white blur in the distance, yes, it was him, with a cross on his shoulder, and as he came closer they could see the traces of fresh earth still on it. He came stalking back and everyone greeted him with admiration, especially the girls. You could see that many of the young men were envious. They sat down at the table, with the oak cross leaning against the table next to the brave young man, who grabbed a great beer-mug full of wine and, clutching it with both hands, drained it. He hadn't been so thirsty for ages. His throat was dry and tight, and his mouth was dry, too.
.... "Have another one," his friends offered, "You'll need lots of nerve to take the cross back and stick it back where it belongs."
.... The young man tossed back another mugful, leaving a little wine at the bottom, wiped his mouth with his sleeve, put the cross on his back and set off, with a slightly uncertain step, towards the cemetery. It was getting on for midnight. Only a few windows shone out here and there, otherwise everything was dark, everyone was asleep, there was no-one on the lane but the lonely traveller, his clothes gleaming white in the darkness, with a black cross on his shoulder.
.... His friends waited, sipping the wine, which had not yet been paid for. Time passed, Yanko seemed to have been gone a little too long, and some of the girls became uneasy.
.... "He may have dropped off to sleep on the grave," Stevo joked.
.... Midnight had long passed, Yanko should have been back, but the lane leading to the cemetery was deserted. They had all stopped talking. The chilly night air crept under their clothes, it was time to go home. The sky in the east seemed to have grown a shade lighter. The first cock crowed.
.... "Come on, lads, let's go and have a look, something's wrong," Stevo suggested.
.... The young people set off towards the cemetery, the girls, too. They were curious, and also afraid to be left alone.
.... As soon as they set foot in the cemetery, they caught sight of something white on a nearby mound. They all stopped short, and the bolder of them came closer. They turned the young man's body over and met the glassy gaze of their friend. They tried to move him, but couldn't.
.... As he was pushing the cross into the ground, he had knelt down, and the hem of his loose tunic had fallen across the place where the cross had been. When he tried to get up, his shirt pulled him back towards the grave, and his heart had not been equal to the shock. They say he had the biggest funeral the village had ever seen. The young men and girls took up a collection and bought a big iron cross. No-one tended the grave, it was overgrown with grass, because he had no descendants. A girl would sometimes put a flower on the overgrown grave, on the weeds and grass growing round the rusty iron cross. On the feast of All Saints I always surreptitiously dropped a flower on that grave.
.... The grave mounds were sprinkled with flowers, and the candle-flames flickered in the wind. The smell of fresh chrysanthemums mingled with the smell of the wax from the burning candles.
.... My mother prayed longer than usual, and I thought about my little brother, who had died, and remembered the mischief we had got up to. We would not head for home until mother's voice, heard from far away through the orchards, was already hoarse from calling. Mother would always worry because we were late, and she would nag nervously, especially at my brother: "You haven't washed your hands!... Don't speak with your mouth full!... Don't put such big lumps into your mouth! Don't make noises while you're eating; wipe your chin with your napkin, it's greasy! You're holding your fork as if it was a pitchfork; you should hold your fork in your left hand, and your knife in your right."
.... During our Sunday dinner, at which Aunt Maria and Uncle Mato were guests, my uncle would put down his knife and fork and say, a little crossly, "Let the child eat in peace! How do you expect him to eat when you keep nagging at him! He'll learn, there's plenty of time."
.... After my mother's lectures, her irritation would pass on to us, and we could barely swallow our food; we would chew it over and over again, shifting it backwards and forwards in our mouths.
.... When we had been playing by the railway tracks and mother had grown hoarse from calling, we knew what lay in store for us: kneeling on maize.
.... Mother put the familiar pot with the grains of maize in it on the table and gave a short command:
.... "Each of you, into his corner, now!"
.... She carefully poured half the maize on to the floor first in one corner of the room, then another, and then she stood with her arms akimbo, gazing at us sternly and tapping her foot on the floor. We knelt down, our heads bowed, each in his corner. We slyly pushed aside the grains of maize, placing our knees on the small patch of floor where there was no maize.
.... Mother went to call on our neighbour Pepa and forgot all about us. We got up at once and played at being millers all afternoon. It was nearly evening when we caught sight of our mother through the window.
.... "On to the maize, quickly!" my little brother shouted, and in the twinkling of an eye we were kneeling again, each in his corner.
.... "You're not still kneeling, are you?" mother asked, with a note of contrition in her voice. "Come on, get up, for God's sake, I completely forgot about you."
.... My little brother pretended to get up painfully, and I imitated him. The corn had left marks on the skin of his knees, and he placed himself so as to make sure mother saw them.
.... "Ah, that chatterbox, it's all her fault, that Pepa; you could have got up."
.... "You always tell us we mustn't get up until you say so," my little brother said and gave me a sly look. Then he said in a humble, pleading voice:
.... "Mummyyyy..."
.... "Come on, say what it is you want."
.... "Can we go and see the ventriloquist tonight?"
.... "Oh, all right, we'll go, I'll come with you."
.... After the ventriloquist with his dummy, the next act was a thin man with a huge head of cabbage. He cut off slices of cabbage with a big knife and gulped them down. We stared open-mouthed as he swallowed great mouthfuls of raw cabbage. He ate the whole head. When he got up from the table, he had an enormous belly. The whole audience roared with laughter as he waddled off the stage laboriously, clutching the underside of his belly.
.... "Now you see how a person should eat, not like you two," mother said with a smile.
.... We were at the window, watching the snow falling in big snowflakes, as if someone was flinging goose-down into the air. My little brother, wrapped up in mother's big woollen shawl, was kneeling on a chair and pressing his nose against the windowpane, as if to get a better sight of what was going on outside. Everything looked more beautiful through his side of the window, the flakes were bigger than fists, as he kept saying excitedly. Through my side of the window I could see ordinary snowflakes, a little larger than usual, and so I wanted to have a look through his windowpane...
.... "Mummy, tomorrow I'm going to get a prize for doing so well this term," my little brother said.
.... "You can't go to school, you're not well," mother replied.
.... He begged her to let him go and said we would only take the prize and come home straight away...
.... Mother found him on the hill overlooking the school, waiting, frozen, for someone to lend him a sledge "for just one ride".
.... After two or three days mother and father took him to hospital. The days seemed endless, and every day I asked when my little brother would come home.
.... And then he finally came. Father brought him into the house and laid him on the bed. In the corridor my little brother smiled at me and moved his hand slightly as if he wanted to wave to me. Every day he cried so hard that the neighbours could hear him. After a few days he stopped crying. It was mother who cried then. When I came into the room, my little brother was lying on his bed, and a candle was burning on the bedside table. He was wearing his new long trousers, a white shirt, and the new shoes that had been brought by Santa Claus.
.... Aunt Maria came in, took me by the hand, and led me out of the room. I wandered from room to room looking for something to play with. When mother told me my little brother was playing with the angels in heaven, I wanted to go to heaven, too. I told mother that, and she stroked my hair and told me about the Day of Judgment, when we would all meet my little brother, never to part again.
.... When it started to snow, I ran to my side of the window. The snowflakes seemed somehow smaller than before. Then I looked through my brother's side, and the snowflakes seemed bigger, but only for a moment; they soon became tiny, smaller than ever before. Never again did I see snowflakes as huge as those we had seen through my brother's side of the window.
.... Every time we stood by my brother's grave on the feast of All Saints, I waited for mother to tell me again what he had said to her in the hospital: "Mummy, take me to a place where I won t die."
.... My mother put flowers on the grave of Petar Weich, who might have become her father-in-law. His son, Matiya, had fallen head over heels in love with pretty Leni, my mother. Matiya was a workman, and my mother had decided to marry a civil servant.
.... I could still see an old man, bowed down with his years, with a long grey beard and unkempt grey hair, carrying a canvas sack on his shoulder, leaning on a cane, or rather a stick he had picked up somewhere in the woods. He looked round uncertainly, then headed towards our house. He moved his stick to his left hand, then hesitantly knocked on the door with his right.
.... "God be praised!"
.... "May he be praised forever," my mother replied.
.... "Don't you know me, Leni?"
.... "No, I don't; oh, you're Petar, Matiya's father. I know your voice. Come in!"
.... "I won't come in like this, thank you, Leni. You haven't changed at all, you're just as pretty as you ever were, and I was afraid I wouldn't know you... But I wanted to ask you a favour. I heard from the neighbours here that the old wooden house across the street is yours, too, and I'd like to ask you to let me spend the night there when it's raining and it's cold. I can manage to find food somehow."
.... "Come on, Petar!"
.... They walked slowly, as fast as Petar's old legs, with the help of his stick, could carry him.
.... "There, you can sleep comfortably here, and you can stay here whenever you want to, not just when it's raining."
.... Petar stood in front of the high wooden threshold, gripping the door-jamb.
.... "How cosy it is here, and the smell of the hay reminds me of my old hay-loft."
.... "Here, some warm milk will put some life in you."
.... "Thank you, Leni. You know, now that I'm old, I like milk best."
.... They sat down on the bench in the shade of the old lime-tree.
.... "Well, tell me all about it, Petar!"
.... "Leni, it's hard for me to talk about my troubles, but I'll tell you. When the Communists took away my shop I went to live with my son Matiya, but his wife soon drove me out of the house. 'There are five of us in one room, and we haven't a bite to eat as it is,' she said. So I left. It's better this way. I can't bear being in someone's way. You just tell me, Leni, if I get in your way."
.... At daybreak, when we were still asleep, the old man would leave and spend the whole day at the railway station. He used to sit on the platform, holding out an old cap in his shaky hand:
.... "Help a poor man, and God will help you!"
.... When dusk was falling he would creep silently back to the hay-barn. There would be a mug of warm, fresh milk waiting for him on the bench.
.... "Thank you, Leni, may God reward you!" he used to say with a sigh, even when there was no-one there to hear him.
.... One night we heard the death-watch bird. People believe that it is a sign that someone nearby will die. The following evening my mother took a mug of warm milk to the old man. He was lying on his bed of hay, gaunt and motionless, and gave no sign that he was glad to see mother. His staring glassy eyes seemed to be asking, "Couldn't it have ended differently?"
.... "I'll light a candle, and you go and tell Matiya," mother said to father.
.... "How did it happen, tell me, Leni?" asked Matiya when he arrived.
.... "He just fell asleep," my mother replied.
.... "I feel bad about this, Leni, this is a great blow to me and a great disgrace."
.... "Your father left this," said my mother, holding out a small bundle of rags.
.... Matiya's eyes filled with tears and his hand trembled as he took out a pipe and a wooden seal with the inscription: PETAR WEICH - tradesman.

Next: Chapter 15