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The Days of Unleavened Bread, Chapter 17

I had met Aunt Albina at our wedding. I could still see in my mind's eye Boris leading a middle-aged woman on his arm. She had a care-worn face, on which a smile broke out as they approached me. She was wearing a blue poplin dress with white polka-dots and long sleeves. The closer she came, the wider and warmer her smile grew. She pulled down the sleeves of her dress several times as if she was cold, although it was warm and all the women were wearing short sleeves. At one moment I caught sight of some scars on her wrists. She lived at the seaside alone in a small flat in part of a beautiful big villa concealed behind tall fir and pine trees.
.... The sea - my old dream. I daydreamed about the beautiful family villas amid green Mediterranean vegetation, with rows of flower-lined paths and evergreen laurel shrubs, I daydreamed about palm trees, about the big fan-like leaves that must be so beautiful. I had seen them only on postcards.
.... The two of us had to stand almost throughout the journey, while Robert sat on our luggage. As the train rushed on, the fresh air of Gorski Kotar* came in through the open windows, but when the train stopped it seemed reluctant to move on again; it stopped often, waiting for as long as half an hour at a time, and the glaring midday sun beat down on the roof of the carriage, which got red-hot. It was only as twilight was beginning to fall that we saw the sea.
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.... *A region of Croatia, a karst plateau between the edge of the Pannonian plain and the Adriatic coast.
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.... "Well, here we are," said Aunt Albina, stopping in front of a wrought iron gate.
.... In a long and luxuriant hedge there was a tall, black-painted wrought-iron gate with ornamental arabesques and flowers. Across a green lawn there stretched a long path paved with red bricks. The harmonious pattern of bricks was spoiled here and there because the edge of a brick was chipped off. This was due to the carelessness of tenants as they moved in or out.
.... Aunt Albina's flat was in the basement. It was a small one-room flat, with little windows on a level with the lawn. She would let us have the room, and she would sleep on the ottoman in the kitchen.
.... Aunt Albina had cooked fish for supper. Real fresh saltwater fish! First there was a soup made of fish heads and onions, and then a dentex fried in olive oil, boiled potatoes and tomato salad. There was also a bottle of red wine, with drops of moisture clinging to it. Wine and water! Is there anything better after an exhausting journey in an overheated train: the cool shade of a basement room with fried fish and a glass of cold wine and water.
.... "How pleasant the shade is," I observed, wishing to say something complimentary about the flat.
.... "I'd rather live a little higher up, even if it was in the garret. I spent the best years of my life up there, in the garret, that's where all my memories are," replied Aunt Albina, and went on, "Memories are all I have left now, they nourish my soul, without them my life would have been over long ago... I came here when I was sixteen. That was the year my mother died. A storm was gathering, and the hay was spread out all over the meadow. My mother had gone to gather the hay, she was all wet with sweat, and then there was a shower. My mother ran off and lay down beneath the cart, wet as she was. She was overcome with exhaustion, and fell asleep. That's how she came to die of pneumonia. The house was full of children, all steps and stairs, as they say. I was the eldest. Soon father brought home a shrewish woman he had met in the pub. The house was too small for both of us. That's how I found myself in front of this big wrought-iron gate with a bundle in my hands and apprehension in my soul. It was the first time I had left my native village, my Gorski Kotar, and seen the sea. The master and missus were still young then. They accepted me as one of their own. I grew to love them too, and I did my best to be always at hand and to please them in everything. Sometimes, when the master came home tired out from hunting, he liked me to wash his feet. Madam taught me how to massage her back. I was glad to do that, because I knew it pleased them. We had visitors, people of quality, ladies with whole flower-gardens on their hats, and gentlemen in tail-coats, with black top hats and stiff white collars. On every special occasion I was given a new dress or a skirt and blouse, and a new white apron. And I was always cheerful and, they say, pretty, with a trim figure and beautiful long hair. How time flies! I saw all sorts of things, good and bad. Once I had put the wine bottles in a basket and was about to come out of the cellar. I was met at the door by an elderly gentlemen, who often came to see us. I had noticed before that he sometimes looked at me slyly out of the corner of his eye. 'Let me help you, give me that basket.' I could see that he was already slightly tipsy. He took the basket from my hand, put it down on the concrete and grabbed both my hands, as if a blacksmith had me in a vice. 'Be good, little girl, I won't hurt you.' He pressed me against the wall. I struggled, but the old devil was tough. Tears sprang to my eyes because of the pain. Then footsteps could be heard outside. The master came in through the door, my saviour, and I will be grateful to him as long as I live... The missus had in the meantime died of some evil disease. They were not yet old. Perhaps a little over fifty. And so master and I were left alone. The master was thoughtful and considerate, he never laid a finger on me. Sometimes I would notice him watching me over the top of his paper while I was making the beds. I was once dusting the books on the shelf, when the master asked me to sit down so that we could have a talk. I sat down on the chair where I usually sat only when I was alone, when there was no-one to see me, otherwise I didn't, because that was the way things were then. I had my chair in the kitchen, that was my place... The master gave a little cough and then started speaking softly and slowly, because he was like that - quiet, gentle, never in a hurry, never nervous, not like the missus, who was a little on edge... So the master and I were sitting in the library, and he said, 'And so, Albina, the two of us have been left alone. The years are passing, they have passed too quickly, and here I am at an age when a man has to settle his accounts. You've been good to us, we both grew to love you, my dear departed wife and I. You're getting on in years, too, now. How old are you, about forty, aren't you? Well, time flies, but I can still see you coming up the path carrying your things in a bundle. While my wife was still alive we would sometimes talk about you. It wasn't a firm agreement, but we thought we would like to reward you for your many years of loyal service. We haven't any children, God didn't give us any, maybe that's why my wife was a little bad-tempered at times. She died and left me too soon, all of a sudden, and we never settled anything as far as you were concerned. It's true I'm still in good health, thank heavens, and I don't think my end is very near, but one should think of these things in good time, because anything is liable to happen. When I sit here and my eyes get tired of reading, I think about whether I ought to make a will. If I die intestate, they'll all come buzzing around here like wasps round a honey-pot, distant relatives who never even bothered to ask how I was. You're closer to me than they are.' I was so excited I blushed, but I had no idea of how much I might inherit. The master didn't say anything definite. I thought perhaps he would leave me my little attic room, and this gave me a ray of hope and a feeling of happiness... Then that stormy night in 1940 came. There was a hurricane that laid waste all the fields. It flattened the wheat and broke the maize stalks, as if someone had hit each stalk with a stick. Our neighbour Tonchi, the village baker, was killed that night; he used to bring us fresh rolls all the way from the village, in a big white wicker basket, covered with a white cloth. He would always give me a roll or a croissant, and he would gently pinch my cheek. Poor man, he tripped over a fallen live wire, got entangled in it and took hold of it with his hand... Palm trees split and branches came crashing down. Lightning ripped the sky open again and time again, and each flash of lightning lighted up the room as if it was daytime. The night was sultry and hot, you couldn't get to sleep, and the thunder wouldn't let you. I had always been terrified of thunder. In summer I slept in a thin nightgown, but now I took it off and threw it over the back of a chair. I threw off the sheet I had covered myself with, too, and lay there on my back stark naked, staring at the window and waiting for the next flash of lightning. When it came, I saw my body, still trim and lovely. I'll tell you the whole story, you're not children any more, and I like memories, they're all I have left. There was a sudden flash of lightning and I caught sight of my master standing in the doorway. He had thrown his dressing-gown loosely over his shoulders. I saw that he was naked, and he saw me, too. I screamed and grabbed for the sheet, but the darkness covered me before I could find it. Then I heard my master's voice: 'I'm sorry, Albina, the lightning played a trick on us. It's hot, I can't sleep, and I wanted to ask you if you were still afraid of the thunder.' We exchanged a few words, and the master went away. He was still a good-looking man. Although he was getting on in years, he held himself upright and was full of vitality; sports, swimming and hunting had helped him keep his physique and his health. I tried to sleep, but sleep wouldn't come. As soon as I shut my eyes, I saw the flash of lightning again, and I saw my master standing in the doorway, naked. I started praying, I tried to imagine I was in church, that I was looking at the altar, but it was no good. All I could see was my master, his sturdy male thighs and his broad chest with a light covering of hair, his firm neck and the proud tilt of his head. I looked at Christ crucified above the altar, but I was filled with horror, and had to avert my eyes. I had seen my master's naked body again! I felt a wonderful warmth creeping through my body. Then I heard a voice from the end of the corridor: 'Albina, are you asleep?' I answered so quickly that I surprised myself: 'No, it's hot, I can't get to sleep.' He came to the open door of my room. He turned the light on in the corridor. I had covered myself up to the neck with my sheet, which I was clutching with both hands. He suggested that we should have a chat, because he couldn't sleep anyway. We talked for a long time, reminiscing about old times. He told me about the war that was already raging in Europe. If it came here, as it probably would, it would spare no-one. He was afraid that he, too, would be sent to a concentration camp, like other Jews throughout occupied Europe. He spoke of the fate that awaited him if Hitler came here. I felt sorry for him, as if what he was talking about was already happening. A tear crept down from my eye, and he noticed it. He wiped it away, and I felt a thrill of excitement and the same warmth that I had felt before, when the lightning flashed.... I can barely remember what happened after that. Was it just a dream or was it real, was I dreaming or waking? In the morning, while I was making breakfast, he wrote his will, leaving everything to me, both his real estate and his personal effects. For a year I was a happy woman. It was as if we wanted to make up for lost time and all that long, secret yearning... In the spring of 1941 we saw tanks with swastikas and lorries full of soldiers, countless olive-green motorcycles and German uniforms. Then that dark night came, the darkest night of my sad life. I had just dozed off when I was awakened by a strange banging on the floor, as if someone was thumping on the floor with his fists. I got up slowly, so that the bedstead wouldn't creak, and set off in the direction of the banging. The door of my master's room was open, and I saw him kneeling on the floor, bending backwards and forwards, sometimes banging on the floor with his fists. He was wearing a white cape and a little black skull-cap. I had never before seen the way Jews pray, and his swaying and prostrations struck me as strange and a little frightening. I crept back to my room on tiptoe and couldn't fall asleep for a long time. The following morning they knocked on our door and took away my master, who was now the master of my whole being, body and soul. I was left alone, with a tiny hope, just a ray, that he would survive. He would come back, he had to come back, he had never hurt a soul... He didn't come back. The war passed and the new order came. Some people welcomed it with celebrations, cheering, and cries of joy, while others just looked at each other with fear in their eyes. The Communists, they said, took everything away from people. I was summoned before the People's Committee: 'Sign this, comrade!' I wanted to read it first, but I didn't need to read it because the 'comrade' told me at once that they were taking my villa away. I let out a scream, I swayed, and sat down on a chair. 'No, I won't sign it, you'll have to take it from me without my signature.' That's what I told them, and they put me in jail. The comfort of my roomy villa was replaced by a cramped, cold and damp basement cell in the town jail. They bound my hands with a piece of wire, that's why I always wear long sleeves. Look! The wire cut into my flesh, and these scars were left by the wounds. After long, hard days and sleepless nights, they let me out again. Where could I go but to my home? I was met by the janitor who gave me the keys to the basement flat. This flat here. 'The house isn't yours any more, comrade Albina, it has been confiscated for public use, and this is quite enough for you. You can thank God you haven't fared worse.'"
.... "You're a real artist," said Boris to Aunt Albina at lunch, complementing her on her cooking.
.... "That's interesting! The master often said exactly the same thing in those very words, I can hear him now, especially if the meal included fish. The missus would be a little cross then, but all she said was, 'You've said that a hundred times.' The master would reply with a smile, 'But whenever I said it, it was true. My only mistake is that I didn't say it every time it needed saying.'"
.... Aunt Albina got up and went out. We watched her through the window as she walked down the path running round the house, stopping here and there to gaze at the treetops, then glancing up at the attic. From time to time she pulled down her sleeves.
.... In the late afternoon we set off for a walk on the seafront.
.... "Don't look too closely at it all. The flowers that have been pulled up from the flower beds hurt me as if it was my own hair that had been pulled from my head. All those broken branches, hanging there, all dried up, or lying by the roadside, hurt me too. All that litter lying around, those cartons and greasy scraps of paper, fruit peelings, lemon rinds, cigarette butts, and other rubbish, I feel so bad about them every time I pass by. The paths and lawns here used to be spotlessly clean, as if someone was looking after them all the time. And we all were, we were careful, whenever I saw a piece of litter I would pick it up, and others would do the same. It's useless now, there's far too much litter, it's everywhere. Ladies and gentlemen used to walk along these paths, but now we get hillbillies with straws in their unkempt hair. They come here straight from their haylofts, shake the dust from their feet, and go straight to the beach."
.... "Don't talk like that, aunt. They're working people. Where and how can they groom themselves, primp and preen? It's only right that working people should enjoy this beautiful scenery, and not just the gentry, the way it used to be. That's what our people fought for," Boris said.
.... Aunt Albina simply looked at us with a dismissive gesture.
.... "Lisa, we could go on an outing tomorrow. There's a lovely path overlooking the town. From up there you can see the whole Kvarner Bay, with its islands like strange ships sailing peacefully on the blue Adriatic."
.... I was only too glad to accept this suggestion. I wanted to clamber up Mount Uchka and look at the sea from up there. Perhaps it would look beautiful from a long way away, as it had done a few days previously from the train window.
.... "I like you best, Lisa, when you're near to me."
.... "You're a baby, Boris. Just as you were when you used to climb high up to the top branches of the chestnut, and I was terrified you would fall."
.... "Were you really afraid I'd fall? I wish I'd known that then."
.... "I was afraid I wouldn't have anyone to play with, if anything happened to you."
.... "Was it just that? Even then you were nothing but a little egoist."
.... "I don't think I'm so selfish now, and I don't think I was even then. Things aren't always the way we pretend they are, but if we go on talking like this, we'll really stay awake until dawn."
.... "Lisa, I'd like to stay awake and see all the future dawns of my life - with you."
.... "Why are you exaggerating?"
.... "I really mean it, I swear, Lisa."
.... "How can a Communist believe in vows? Since when do Communists take vows?"
.... "I'm not a Communist any more. You know I was expelled from the Party before they sent me to prison."
.... "As far as I know, you're not very pious, either."
.... "Well, no, a man can't change that easily. But when I swear to you, believe me, I really mean it."
.... We left the wide asphalt path and set off up a steep track that seemed like a long ribbon that someone had unwound carelessly and that the wind had blown a little to the left or to the right, so that now it wound across the green surface of the meadow or led through a dense grove of trees. We arrived on a little plateau with a bench underneath an old elm-tree, the shade of which was irresistible. We had climbed quite high up. Down below us the Kvarner Bay, the sea and the islands were bathed in sunlight.
.... "This is a really lovely country, isn't it, Lisa?"
.... The scene before me reminded me of a huge map.
.... "Let's stop here a moment, Lisa. We don't have to climb to the top if it's hard for you. You're not the only one with a pain in the chest."
.... We sat down on the bench.
.... "Boris, I can't stand it any longer."
.... "All right, say what's on your mind, get it off your chest. A bit of psychoanalysis always helps, you know, or perhaps a confession, if you prefer the Christian terminology."
.... "Boris, let's get out of this country!"
.... Boris fell silent. He was always like that when something caught him unawares.
.... "What are you talking about, Lisa?" What do you mean, get out of the country? You don't mean you want us to emigrate?"
.... "My family is of German stock, and many of our acquaintances are already back in Germany. We'd be able to find jobs, all it takes is a little nerve. Come on, Boris, promise me you'll at least think about it, it'll make me feel better."
.... It was long past midnight. The moonlight was giving way to the dawn that was just breaking.
.... "I promise I'll think about it. I'll try, as I always have done, to please you and do what you want. I'll even accept the possibility that you may decide for yourself, and go without me."
.... "What are you saying, Boris?" How could I leave without you? I know you've been honest, I believe you, so please believe me. I'll do whatever you decide."
.... "Thank you, Lisa. After what you've just said it will be even more difficult for me to come to a decision."
.... "Tell me, Boris, do you really believe in that Socialism of yours?"
.... "Of course I do. What sort of question is that?" Socialism is the future of mankind. You'll see, it will all become clear soon."
.... "I'm afraid, Boris, that we'll soon go hungry."
.... I couldn't get to sleep. Rays of moonlight stole through the shutters and stung my eyes like spikes, even when I closed them. My head was in a whirl, all kinds of thoughts vying with each other, and I did my best not to dwell on any of them, because then I wouldn't fall asleep for ages... One thought was particularly insistent, and it made me sad. I opened my eyes and looked towards the window, hoping to see up there what was in my mind. I got up silently, went to the window and opened the shutters.
.... "What are you looking at, Lisa?"
.... "What do you think, what's it like up there now, up there in space?"
.... "I don't know, why are you asking?"
.... "I'm sorry for Laika. Maybe she's cold, maybe she's hungry and thirsty. Do you think she'll ever come back to the Earth alive?"
.... "I don't know that, but, as far as I know, she's warm and they're feeding her automatically. Here on Earth they're measuring her blood pressure and her pulse, as well as her respiration rate. I think she's been up there for seven days now, yes, that's right, today is Sunday, the tenth of November. It's nearly the end of 1961. It hasn't been an easy year. We'll soon be celebrating New Year. The next year will be better. There are already plans for economic recovery... Are you crying? All because of a little dog who isn't having such a hard time?... Are you crying because of Laika?"
.... "No, Boris, I'm not crying because of Laika. Go to sleep, good night."
.... * * *
.... We put some potatoes and canned food into the boot of the car, a Shkoda, because everything in Italy was far too expensive for us. We would have a few lire for petrol. We filled the tank before reaching the border, and we had taken a spare can of petrol with us. It was the first time we had crossed the frontier. We held our passports out through the window a little nervously. The Italian customs officers were saying something and pointing at the boot of the car. We opened it with trembling hands. The box had toppled over, and the potatoes had been scattered among the tins of goulash and stuffed sauerkraut leaves. The onions were still in their place, in their net. We looked at the customs officers, feeling awkward. Would they object? We tried to say something in Italian, but they just smiled, dismissed us with a wave of the hand, and said, "Va bene, va bene, a rivederci,"* turning away towards the next car. We looked at each other, shrugged, got into the car, and there we were, on our first trip abroad.
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.... * O.K., O.K., so long.
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.... I was as happy as a child that has stolen a piece of cake. They hadn't noticed the can of petrol, and we had taken our German marks across without any problems. Wonderful, we'd be able to go as far as Rome, the city of my dreams.
.... Ponte Rosso. Brightly coloured clothes attracting our attention on all sides. In the shop windows, the bright colours fascinated us, but the prices were discouraging. We looked only at the garments hanging in front of the market stalls on the square. Here the prices were much lower, and the customers were our fellow-countrymen. We had some German marks we had bought from our neighbour who worked in Germany. The German mark was much prized here, while the dinar didn't get you very far, especially if you went beyond Trieste, into the interior of the country, where it was not often accepted.
.... We arrived in the camp near Venice as dusk was falling. We were so tired that we could hardly put up our little blue tent. We lay down on our barely inflated rubber mattresses and fell asleep at once.
.... Venice. The buildings seemed to float on the water. They were built on wooden piles driven into the soft, muddy seabed. Thick wooden planks were placed across these, and the foundations of the buildings were laid on them. The wood had been brought here by ship, and the ships were rowed by galley-slaves. Among them there had been many unruly young men from the Croatian coast of the Adriatic, youths who had incurred the displeasure of their Venetian rulers. They had been dragged off to the galleys by force, chained to the benches and the oars, deep down in those damp and dismal ships. They rapidly grew old and when they were worn out they were simply thrown overboard, to be replaced by fresh men who were younger and stronger.
.... St. Mark's Square. Flocks of pigeons blocked off the sunlight like clouds. We bought a bag of bird-seed and scattered it about. In a moment we were surrounded by a multitude of these city birds, they settled on our shoulders and our outstretched arms. A photographer turned up from nowhere and took a picture of us, so we had to do without an ice-cream and a cup of coffee on the terrace in front of the restaurant. We could not afford both.
.... Gondolas glided down the Grand Canal. A gondolier was standing on the prow of his gondola, wielding his long oar and singing, "O sole mio", and a pair of young lovers were sitting in the gondola holding hands. When night fell, lanterns glowed on the gondolas, and a multitude of tiny lights skimmed the surface of the canals like swarms of Midsummer fireflies.
.... The Strada del Sole motorway! A wide, endless band of asphalt disappearing into the distance. We tried to keep up with the Fiats, but we couldn't. Our speed kept dropping, but our temperature gauge moved more and more often into the red field. Suddenly a cloud of steam hissed from under the bonnet - the water in the radiator was boiling! The Fiats whizzed past us and disappeared into the distance, down the "sunshine motorway", but we were left behind, until darkness fell.
.... "Let's go home," Boris suggested.
.... "Yes, let's," I replied reluctantly. I had so wanted to see Rome!
.... "We'll go by sea. We'll see the Croatian coast at dawn. I'd like you to see it with the sun rising over it," Boris added with a concealed note of joy in his voice.
.... I was awakened by the sound of the ship's siren.
.... "Come on, get dressed, let's go up on deck."
.... The fresh morning air, smelling of the sea, drove away our sleepiness as we stood by the railing. Boris put his arm round my shoulders and held me close.
.... "We'll be warmer this way. Just a few moments longer. I want you to see it for yourself."
.... The sea was calm and the ship seemed to be standing still. Wherever I looked, I could see nothing but the endless blue horizon of the open sea, with its majestic and mysterious depths. How silent it was, the silence was broken only now and then by the sound of a breaker, and then everything would be calm again and there would be a mysterious kind of humming sound. The peaks of Velebit appeared in the distance. They seemed to grow taller every moment, as if they were rising from the sea...
.... I turned my gaze to the craggy rocks of Velebit. The sun peeped out and its radiance spread over the tips of the crags, while the shadows retreated and vanished into the sea. My eyes were drawn to the light that had appeared above that silver-haired, venerable old man, Mount Velebit. The red glow of the rising sun spread across the sky above the mountain, and the craggy cliffs of Velebit glowed white. I lowered my gaze to rest my eyes and saw the blue surface of the Adriatic Sea.
.... "This is so beautiful!" I heard myself say.
.... "You see, Lisa, one day, at twilight, about thirteen centuries ago, our ancestors came across this place. That is to say, my ancestors; your ancestors came to meet us, as far as the shores of the cold Baltic Sea. My ancestors, then, straggled down to the coast and, unable to go any further, lay down, exhausted, on the soft, warm sand and fell asleep. They were so weary they didn't even feel the pangs of hunger. Before dawn they were awakened by the sound of the waves breaking. 'There must be fish here,' they exclaimed and hastened to build a raft. They lashed logs together with tough creepers and pushed off towards the open sea in search of fish. While they were out on the open sea, dawn broke. They turned their gaze towards Velebit, and they saw what we see now: the red of the rising sun, and the light spreading over the white crags of Velebit, and then their gaze fell on the blue surface of the sea. Perhaps they, too, exclaimed, 'This is so beautiful!' Those three colours, red - the rising sun, white - the cliffs of Velebit, and blue - the colour of the sea, are now the colours of the Croatian flag. And so the Croats settled on the Adriatic coast, and they've been here for thirteen centuries. They were followed by their guardian fairies, who took up their abode on Velebit. They have been watching over this treasure for centuries. Many people have tried to take it away from us, but we drove them off every time."

Next: Chapter 18