The cool September breeze rustled through the fields. As usual, Maria had been the first to awaken, and she ran outside to greet another day. It was definitely getting cooler. Hugging herself to keep warm, Maria surveyed her home. Lucky number 7 was inscribed on the plaque above the doorway. It was also her age. There was nothing lucky about this house. Papa was gone, maybe for good. There was hardly enough food to go around. Maria couldn’t stand to think of the long, hard days she had put in during the past year. Wasn’t there no more to life than this? School, cooking, cleaning, babies, washing, gardening, milking… Was there no end to it?
“Maria, get in here!” shouted Mama. “I should have known you’d be out there with your head in the clouds. You’d think you had nothing better to do than daydream the whole day long.”
“I’m coming, Mama.” Obediently, Maria began her chores for the day. Just as she set the last bowl on the table, Maria felt the wind as the cottage door flung open.
For a moment no one moved as they stood staring at the two tall dark-haired strangers in their doorway.
“Well, what have we here?” laughed one of the men. “Nothing but some children and a couple of women. I think they’ll serve our needs well enough, though, eh Antonio?”
“Food, that’s all we’re here for, Franko, remember?”
“A little bit of entertainment would suit me as well. This woman isn’t too bad looking for a Slav.”
“There are children here, for Christ’s sake.”
“You always know how to spoil the fun, don’t you, Antonio? Oh well, at least our bellies can get some satisfaction. Get to work, woman! Hustle up some food!”
Mama was pale from shock, but she knew she had to obey these men. The stories they’d heard about them were terrifying. They had no concern for the lives of the people whose country they occupied.
“We are a poor family. We have little to offer, but you may share our bread and porridge if it pleases you,” Mama stammered, not looking directly at them.
“Ha! We can surely do better than this!” Franko left the cottage and headed toward the henhouse. They all heard the chickens squawking as Franko entered the old wooden shed. He dragged one of the hens back to the house and wrung its neck in full view of the children. Tossing it on the table, he laughed, “Now you’ve got something to cook. A real meal! Bring us some wine while we wait for the chicken.”
The children huddled in a corner, shaking, while Mama plucked the bird. Grandmother brought a flask of homemade red wine from the cellar and set two glasses in front of the strangers, who had made themselves comfortable at the table.
“Maria, take the children outside to play,” ordered Mama as she went to the pantry to peel potatoes.
While Mama and Grandmother prepared the meal, the children ran down to the river. Maria watched out for the little ones. John skipped stones, as Kata waded along the shore. Nick tried to imitate John, but he couldn’t throw nearly as far. Frank and Mark sat on the grass and watched, while Maria sang for them. She felt a pang of fear and uncertainty about those strange men. Surely they wouldn’t hurt Mama? Not if she did as they asked. Maria assured herself that everything would turn out all right.
Or would it? As she remembered how that stranger stared at Mama, Maria wondered exactly what was going on now. Was he hurting Mama? Would he be satisfied with the meal she prepared or would he want something else? What else? What was happening? Should she go for help?
“John, Kata! Watch the little ones. I’m going over to the Muric household for help.” Maria leapt to her feet and ran through the tall grass.
In a matter of a few minutes, she reached the clay-baked house where her friend, Rita, lived. She banged on the door frantically, but there was no answer. Again she banged and yelled for help. Maria tried the latch on the door and it opened easily. There was no one inside.
She turned and ran swiftly down the gravel road towards the outskirts of the village, past several strips of farmland before she reached the Muric grapevines. Peter, Rita, their mother and grandfather were busily gathering grapes while the younger children played.
Maria shouted as she approached. “Two men with guns are at our house. I think they mean to hurt Mama. Can you help, please?”
Peter and his grandfather immediately left their work and went to their neighbour’s aid.
By the time they arrived at the house, the two men were drunk. One of them was trying to pull Mama onto his lap and kiss her.
“These are our women,” claimed Peter’s grandfather. “Let them be.”
The man pulled out his gun and laughed, “And what if we don’t?”
“Eh Franko, we don’t want no trouble. Let’s get out of here,” said the other man.
“You’re right. She’s not worth the trouble. Let’s get out of this dump.”
As the two men fled down the road with some bread in their pockets, Mama said, “Well, Branko, looks like you and your family will be joining us for a feast this fine day.”
The church was ornately decorated. Lit by candlelight, the paintings and sculptures looked magnificent. The church-goers were mainly women and children. The few men who attended sat on the opposite side of the church. Everyone was dressed in their Sunday best. The men wore black suits and hats; the women wore their best homemade dresses and kerchiefs to cover their heads.
Maria sat with Kata, Mama, her brothers, and her grandmother. Every now and then she glanced across the room to where Peter sat with his grandfather. She paid little attention to the Christmas service.
Afterwards, the women waited until the men left the church. Once everyone was outside in the crisp December air, they gathered in groups to socialize.
“Good day, Marica.” Peter’s grandfather waved to Mama as he walked past the circle of women.
Marica waved back, but she was too intent on the conversation within her group to take notice of anyone else, including her own children, who were now running wild around the graveyard. Maria stood close by and listened in as the women spoke.
“How can she carry on that way? She should be ashamed of herself defacing the family name,” said one of the older women.
“If her father were alive today, he’d have her out on her behind, I’ll grant you that!” exclaimed another.
Maria knew they were talking about Tina. Everyone in the small village knew everyone else’s business. There was no hiding from the truth.
“Perhaps the rumours aren’t true,” ventured Marica.
“Hah, I know for a fact that she’s been flirting with at least one enemy soldier. I saw it with my own eyes. God only knows what she’s been doing in private,” retorted Ljuba.
“What an example she is for those two sisters of hers,” added Zlata.
The two older ladies gossiped on about Tina, while the others listened.
“And to think she has the gall to show up at church every Sunday.”
“She’s only seventeen, Ljuba,” Marica argued. “She’s had no mother for seven of those years, and no father for the past year. It can’t be easy for her raising two younger sisters on her own. If she’s sinned, we should pray for her instead of condemning her.” With those final words on the matter, the group dispersed and Marica sought out her children.
As they walked back home along the Kupa river, Marica thought about Tina. Now there was a real tragedy. No parents, no grandparents, no one. Of course, she had aunts and uncles, but they were busy with their own families. What poor Tina really needed was a good man who would marry her and take care of her and her sisters. Too bad that good men were in short supply nowadays. If the rumours about Tina and the soldiers were true, she’d stand little chance of getting any husband.
When the Petrovic family arrived home, Marica and Grandmother prepared a Sunday feast of smoked ham, potatoes, and egg strudel. After dinner, Marica stood up and said, “Maria, help your grandmother tidy up the dishes. I’m going over to visit Tina Pavlakovic for a while.”
Her house was only five minutes away. No one was far away from anyone in the village.
Marica knocked firmly on the old door. She knew Tina had to be home by now. Tina always sat at the back of the church and left as soon as mass was over.
A pretty young brown-haired woman answered the door. “Good day, Marica. How are you?”
“I’m fine, Tina. It’s you who I’m worried about.”
“Oh, what do you mean? Everything is fine here.”
“That’s not what I’ve heard from the others. Where can we talk in private?”
“Come inside. The girls are in the barn feeding the chickens.”
Marica entered the dilapidated cottage. It had been a fine home once, she thought, but was getting run down since the death of Tina’s father. Tina motioned for her to sit by the fire. “Now, what is it you’ve come to say?” she inquired.
“They say you’ve been with enemy soldiers.”
“What of it?”
“What of it? What are you saying? Is it true?”
“What I do is my business, not the whole town’s.”
“But they’re the enemy, Tina! How can we win the war when our own people fraternize with the other side? Not to mention the fact that you’re an unmarried woman. How do you expect to get yourself a husband?”
“That’s not my immediate concern. I know you mean well, but you’re sticking your nose in where it doesn’t belong. I think it’s time for you to leave.”
“It may not be my business, girl, but think of yourself and your two sisters. What kind of future can you expect if you behave this way?”
“How do you expect me to think of the future when I live from day to day? I have to be the one who makes sure there’s food on the table. The soldiers give me money. I take it gladly. It beats starving to death.”
“They say you’ll go to hell, Tina.”
A shrill insane laughter rang through the decaying cottage. When she finally subdued herself, Tina looked Marica straight in the eyes and calmly said, “Hell? Where do you think we are now? Paradise? Let me tell you something, Marica. I’ve seen Hell with my own eyes. I’ve lived in it since the day my father died and left me with nothing but this shack and a few strips of land, along with two children to care for. I have no fear of hell. There’s nothing worse than this. Hell? We’re in it, all of us. Only some of us don’t know it yet.”
Marica stood up abruptly and let herself out without looking back. Tina ran after her.
“And you, Marica? What would you do if you had no one? If you had only the children to feed and no means of doing so? Would you accept help, from wherever it came? Or would you let the little ones suffer and die?” Tina shouted. “How dare you judge me for doing what I have to do!”
Marica kept walking. But Tina’s words resonated with her. What would she do? What if the children’s father didn’t come home after the war? What if she had no family to help her? What if she could find no means of supporting her children? What would she be willing to do?
Marica stopped abruptly and turned to face Tina. As Tina stood with her mouth open, as though expecting another onslaught of judgement, Marica put her arms around her and held her close.
From behind the bushes, where she had been following and listening, Maria heard her mother’s words. They would stay with her for life.
“It’s okay. You’re going to be okay. I’ll talk to the others and get them to understand. I’ll do whatever I can to help you. We’re in this life together, all of us. And we’re all going to be okay. Everything is going to be all right.”
Ivanka Fear is a former teacher now pursuing her passion for writing. She lives in midwestern Ontario, Canada, with her family and cats. Her poems and short stories appear in Spadina Literary Review, Montreal Writes, Adelaide Literary, October Hill, Scarlet Leaf Review, The Sirens Call, The Literary Hatchet, Understorey, Aphelion, Muddy River Poetry Review, and elsewhere. You can read more about her HERE.
Wow! What a great story! It held me tightly the whole way through!